Part One: ‘Keep Calm’

A decade or so ago, five words went viral; a peculiarly chirpy spin on that quintessentially British ‘stiff upper lip’, an exaltation to persist with normality in the face of adversity, come what may – ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

And didn’t it just carry on? Posters, birthday cards, t-shirts, mugs – all featuring the slogan adorned by a crown motif on a solid-coloured background – you couldn’t move online or on the high street without seeing an example of this quaintly understated piece of pseudo-pop art (with some variants on the theme more amusing or appropriate than others – ‘Keep calm and drink tea’? Don’t mind if I do!)

People could have been forgiven for mistaking it for something from The Great British Bake Off – you can just imagine it, printed on a tea-towel, mopping up crumbs as the bakers finish off another showstopper! For the majority who saw it, this message was likely just considered mere whimsy, a fluffy feel-good quip – however, folks of an older age would possibly be more aware of the piece’s origin, from a much darker and troubled time.

A framed red poster with the slogan

At the outbreak of the second world war, the UK Government tasked its Ministry of Information (MOI) with producing propaganda pieces to keep the populace’s spirits up; ‘Keep Calm’ was one of three ‘Home Publicity’ pieces designed, but the campaign was cancelled in October 1939, with the majority of the ‘Keep Calm’ posters (which were to be issued in the event the country suffered Nazi bombing raids) pulled the following year.

The MOI’s overall campaign was apparently mocked at the time, with criticism of its cost and impact - many claimed not to have seen the posters, with some of the few who recalled seeing the messages labelling them ‘patronising and divisive’.

Simple, clear, and concise messaging is important in times of crisis, when it is essential to communicate important information quickly and effectively, often to a broad audience of people from myriad socio-economic backgrounds. We have had recent experience of this during the COVID-19 pandemic - ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’, for example, is interesting in its construction. The initial instruction, denying usual freedoms, preys on our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events, also known as negativity bias.


Rule of 3 Rules - OK?

With this ‘rule of three’ construction considered useful for creating memorable messaging, two more positive points are added to the initial command to 'stay home', creating an equation of sorts to encourage compliance with the request – “please do ‘unpalatable thing x’ now, it will result in ‘good thing y’ happening, which will lead to ‘very good thing z’ being the outcome” – and what reasonable person could refuse such sound logic? Given the British public’s affection for the NHS, as witnessed with the ‘Clap for Carers’, this seemed a sensible request to make of the population

A red sign encouraging social distancing in a rural village.

Problems arose with Government messaging, however, later in the pandemic when clear instructions gave way to politically-charged prose, with spin taking the place of empirical facts and figures. The Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published a report in November 2020, advising  that messaging should be ‘irony-resistant’, also noting that ‘branding or sloganeering should not come at the expense of clarity and precision’. The succinct yet informative lines from early lockdown had given way to the muddled ifs, buts and maybes of ‘Hands, Face, Space’ - simultaneously less informative and more open to mockery from meme-makers and tabloid content writers.

Some argue that the perceived dumbing down of advice at the end of 2020 may have contributed to apathy amongst sections of society towards the restrictions imposed for public health and safety reasons, however one study found that, almost counter-intuitively, jargon-heavy communications were no less persuasive than any ‘dumbed down’ equivalents when the circumstances were deemed important enough by the audience.

So what makes for good messaging in times of crisis? Social Change UK’s very own Behavioural scientist, Dr Rachel Langbein, is handily placed to offer some insight:


“In order to understand what information people take most notice of, and what they may simply ignore, we need to understand some fundamentals of behavioural science. When it comes to messaging, one cognitive bias that we commonly experience without realising is the framing effect, whereby our decisions are influenced by the way information is presented to us.

Frameworks Institute use their knowledge of social science and the importance of framing to shape effective communication about key social issues. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they published a helpful article about how positive framing could encourage individual action in terms of safety behaviours (i.e., protecting yourself and others). They advised that steering clear 'us vs them' framing (i.e., irresponsible and ignoring people infecting vulnerable groups) and instead seeking 'common good framing' (e.g., using the word "we" to establish collective behaviours that can impact wider society) would encourage people to consider the knock-on effects of their personal behaviours.

“By understanding the power of the framing effect, effective messengers can encourage the public to not only consider the bigger picture when it comes to the wider impacts of their individual behaviour, but also reassure them that all responses to major life-altering events are completely valid (i.e., it's okay if you struggle to keep calm in times of crisis- in fact, it's human nature!)”


So, maybe we don't have to fixate on 'keeping calm' after all, but how do we strike a good balance and stop people from freaking out completely? Look out for our upcoming second blog in this series (Part 2: 'Don't Panic') coming soon!