Fear and me

Sep 21


I admit it. I am afraid. Terrified, actually. Paralyzed to the point of inaction. And now I finally understand, really understand, how fear keeps people from taking steps to improve their well being.

So what am I so afraid of? You will laugh. I am afraid of blogging. Really. A PR person with strong opinions and a big mouth too scared to write for a blog? It just goes to show that fear can be very irrational. And very powerful. I have been struggling with this fear for quite a few months—rationally knowing that I should blog, that there is a part of me that wants to blog, but my irrational fear kept me from actually doing it.

And so I turned to my training in social marketing and risk communications, where we struggle with how to deal with fear all the time. Is it appropriate to use fear in our communications? Can’t fear be a powerful motivator? Or does fear shut people down and turn them off?

There is a big difference between using communications to elicit fear “Do this or else…” and using communications to acknowledge fear in what is rationally a scary situation (public health emergencies, terrorism, natural disasters). Last year at the First World Social Marketing Conference, a group presented a study on the use of fear in social marketing programs—comparing audiences’ reactions and intentions to the same call to action using different levels of “scariness.” Their conclusion: A little fear is a good thing. Too much and people shut down; not enough and no one pays attention.

We have seen similar dynamics through our emergency risk communications work: fear of H1N1 resulted in long lines for vaccinations, which was a good thing. The flu vaccine can protect millions and people from illness and save tens of thousands of lives each year, but our complacency towards seasonal flu keeps us from taking protective actions. In the case of flu, a little fear goes a long way towards protecting ourselves.

But what about fear as a barrier? People avoid cancer screening tests because they fear negative results. They avoid e-filing because they are afraid the IRS won’t receive their tax returns. How do we account for peoples’ fears in our programs and help them overcome their concerns? One strategy is social norming—help create momentum around the “normed” behavior to make those still timid or fearful feel more comfortable. Appeal to the “Everyone else is doing it, I guess I can, too” mindset. Another is the use of social media to create more support for people to step through their fears. Social media enables even those people who are geographically isolated to be closely connected with sources of support.

What are your ideas? Come on, don’t be afraid!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 at 10:13 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Emergency + Risk Communication, Public Health, Public Safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Fear and me”

  1. Linda, you’re right that there is a difference between fear as a motivator and fear as a barrier. One way to get around the barrier is to let people try out the behavior themselves once in a limited and safe way to see that it’s not that hard and to experience the benefits directly. And that’s exactly what you’ve done here. Look! You blogged! And you even got a comment validating that what you said was smart and gave me a new way of thinking about fear in social marketing.

    When I first started blogging, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have enough new and interesting things to say on an ongoing basis. I started with a guest post on someone else’s blog, then decided I liked it enough to try it on my own and didn’t want to stop. Fear is normal when you first put yourself out there, but the more you do it, the more the positive feedback you receive as a blogger will wear that fear away. (See what I did there with that social norming message? :-) ) Great start, keep it up!


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nedra Weinreich, Sarah Marchetti, Richard E. Byrd, RE NATO , Lawrence P. Bergfeld and others. Lawrence P. Bergfeld said: RT @richardarcand: Fear and me | Social Marketing exChange: And so I turned to my training in social marketing and risk communication… http://bit.ly/cmm2Fv […]

  3. Elizabeth (Aust) says:

    I actually believe fear sells cancer screening.
    After decades of scare campaigns and one-sided messages, we’re starting to hear about the risks of some of these tests and that few people actually benefit from them. We’re hearing about informed consent and false positives for the first time.
    This particularly applies to women and cancer screening.
    I did my own research and made an informed decision many years ago not to have cervical screening and more recently rejected breast cancer screening.
    I think fear is diffused when you have the facts and make informed decisions.
    There is no doubt these screening programs foster fear and that keeps women complaint.
    It’s a paternalistic approach that hopefully, will be eventually broken down.
    All women should demand the facts and make an informed decision having regard to her risk profile.