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A meme and storymeme strategy for the COVID-19 Coronavirus - combatting one virus with another virus

A meme and storymeme strategy for the COVID-19  Coronavirus - combatting one virus with another virus

Photo Credit: Jude Beck, Unsplash

Guest Blog by Andy Green, international expert in brand story and creativity

In the battle against Covid-19 Coronavirus memes are playing their part - using one form of virus to counter-act another.

The UK Government Communications team are cleverly using a family of linked memes to deliver their key message of:

#StayatHome   #SavetheNHS   #StayAlive 

The campaign features some profound insight at its heart. The UK Government Communications Service created its own campaign planning framework OASIS. Central to it planning is the need to identify and harness insight. It is clear a simple ‘Look after yourself’ message would have been superficial, failing to engage and leverage off what can create an emotional connection and truly get people to react and change behaviour.

Their research revealed how the National Health Service was a source of pride, a national treasure, that people would respond to any threat to it. Hence the central message ‘Save the NHS’. It also makes clever use of an alliteration of ‘S’s to aid its mnemonic qualities.

Yet, COVID-19 presents an extraordinarily crisis communications challenge. With rapidly increasing numbers of infections and hopes of a vaccine at least a year away, there clearly is no quick fix. People need to be aware, behaviours influenced with new habits formed, yet over a sustained, long period of time.

Repeating a broadcast message won’t work - it will soon suffer from over-use and fatigue, ultimately becoming invisible.

How can you devise a longer-term campaign that is sustainable, even self-sustaining, capable of growing by its own volition over a longer period? A meme strategy containing story memes, within a meme architecture, is one answer.

It is here where the Government Communications Service may need to harness an evolving range of memes

What are memes?

Most people when hearing the word ‘meme’ think of internet memes - the jokes, images, stories that quickly get spread online. Yes, these are memes, albeit of a highly contagious kind in the cyberspace environment. Yet memes are much more than this.

First coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his seminal book ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976), Dawkins advocated how humanity had two forms of communication: genes enabling our DNA to be transmitted from one generation to another and memes. Memes he suggested, serve as parallel means of transmission for any cultural artefact. By cultural artefact this can mean anything from a message to a behaviour.

Shaking hands for example, is a meme. By clasping each other's hand goes beyond a physical act to invoking a cultural statement of peaceful intent or emotional engagement.

Or wearing a surgical face mask in a non-usual setting is another meme, sending out signals of a new, lurking, dangerous threat.

Communication is not just through words, sounds or pictures but also through actions.

Actions are the most powerful form of communication. Aligning what you say with what you do instantly conveys credibility to another, powerfully establishing your integrity, authenticity, trust and trustworthiness.

For a meme to be effective it needs to be:

  • Coherent - is identifiable and readily recognised
  • Sticky - its totality ‘sticks’, is remembered relatively intact
  • Easily-pass-onable and transmitted to others

Memes are potent because people are emotionally driven animals - and by default lazy.

Our brains operate to a default setting of selecting the most convenient, available option that suffices, options that meet a minimum requirement rather than an optimum solution requiring some thought.

Memes provide easy short cuts and tempting choices for our brains.

Critically, for any longer-term campaign, powerful memes are viral and self-replicating, capable of developing their own life and momentum, long past the original transmission.

In the training workshops I deliver on memes typically I find educated people feel uncomfortable around using them. There’s a dislike of simplifying complex arguments and facts into soundbites, seemingly trivialising important messages. There’s a dislike that memes are not fully rational or may often be an incomplete, partial rendition of a more complex message.

I take the view however, it’s better to retain part of a message rather than have a 100% of a more complex message that fails to stick, ultimately being ignored.


If you can create a meme that contains a story - a storymeme - it makes it even more powerful for influencing or changing behaviours. A Storymeme is a meme that contains a narrative. The most basic narrative is timeline. If you can create a meme with a timeline inherent within makes it more potent for creating change.

The meme #StrongerTogether must go down as one of the most unsuccessful campaign memes in history. Why? It was used by both the Remain lobby in the UK Brexit campaign and by Hilary Clinton in her Presidential campaign.

Yet the meme #TogetherStronger has been used successfully as a meme, for example by the Welsh Football Association in its Euro 2016 campaign.

Both memes contain the same words but to paraphrase the comedian Eric Morecombe, are they necessarily in the right order?

Stronger Together is a slogan. Together Stronger contains a narrative: first we come together, then we become stronger - a timeline.

Other narrative patterns storymemes can feature is the ‘Jeopardy’ monster where the hero in the story faces a jeopardy - a problem, a challenge to the prevailing status quo - and by the time you’ve finished the story the jeopardy has been overcome. If you can devise a meme that contains an action to overcome something that also has greater potency for creating change.

By creating a series of linked memes – Stay at Hone – Save the NHS – Save Lives the campaign cleverly creates a narrative.

Yet, it is a narrative which will need to be flexible and adaptive as the week roll into months, with a real danger of message fatigue setting in.

Devising a memes and storymemes strategy

A range of new tools are being developed by a new non-commercial initiative, the Dublin Conversations - a global network of academics and practitioners. Using their new Dublin Conversations ‘Comms Canvas’ tool provides a valuable aid to guide our thinking and planning.

Using  the ‘Comms Canvas’ ‘Five Simple Rules’, inspired by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the Canvas highlights how, by managing how you are known, liked, trusted, front-of-mind or others talking about youenables you to more effectively socially inter-act with others.

These simple rules frame any social inter-action and engagement, enabling you to identify issues and map out your priorities and strategies

Using the Five Simple Rules for the challenge of the COVID-19 campaign we discover:

Being known - assuming a 90% plus awareness of the issue, we don’t need to bang an awareness drum for COVID-19.

We do however need to get known what people can do, the practical steps to take to make themselves and others safer, less vulnerable or less contagious to others, and what to do in case of infection, and to create new social norms around the need to stay at home and practice social distancing.

Liked - although no one will ‘like’ the CODIV-19 Coronavirus, people will however like the idea of doing something about it.

As a result, there is an immensely strong positive inclination, groundswell, a will of desire to engage and take action - if guided. People will be receptive to doing something practical, that doesn’t leave them feeling helpless or vulnerable.

Trusted - a bank of trust is critical for effective engagement. Being regarded as a trusted and trustworthy source, where people believe in what you are say, as well as heed any specific advice, is the fundamental building block for effective social inter-action.

Fortunately, we have two great assets in the UK: the National Health Service is a trusted brand coupled with the evidence-based approach of the Government Communications service

The NHS is one of the most cherished icons in British culture. The NHS brand has high levels of trust Other countries lacking such a trusted source for guidance and direction will be at a serious disadvantage.

According to the Ipsos Mori Veracity Index* nurses, doctors and dentists are the most trusted people to tell the truth. Politicians however, rank bottom. Wisely, the UK Government Communications Service is harnessing the trust power of the medical and care profession in delivering health messages rather than through politicians.

Front-of-mind - people being lazy will choose what is immediately to the fore rather than the best, the optimum choice.

Here is perhaps the most critical battleground in the Coronavirus campaign: how can safety messages about the Coronavirus be kept front of mind?

Being talked about - using memes that self-replicate provides the ammunition for others to spread. Memes help conversations. Memes help your fans spread your word.

Words are tools - use them with surgical precision

The majority of people are complying with the Social Distancing message. There is a minority who either are currently not complying, perhaps from a health hubris that ‘it won’t affect me’.

These could be joined by other as more get disenchanted with staying at home in lockdown.

Here perhaps an evolution of the third meme may need to be considered. If the hardcore minority don’t engage with the ‘Stay Alive’ message a new emotional engagement may need to be considered. (Obviously everything will need to be thoroughly tested).

One possible strategy might be to focus on the consequences of their actions. In the same way that anti-smoking campaigns feature on the effects on loved ones, so the COVID-19 message may need to evolve to an emotional trigger about the effect it may have on those you care about. Potential themes of ‘Don’t be a Corona Killer’ may emerge

Benefits of a meme and storymeme architecture and strategy

When cooking and creating memes and storymemes you are best to launch several to see which gains traction in the real world, rather than selecting one on what everyone sitting around the table agrees on. You need to trial several different memes to discover the most virally potent.

Having a meme and storymeme architecture provides flexibility. Failing to harness memes and storymemes, relying solely on messages with weak memetic qualities, poses a danger of vital messages failing to stick, leading to communications withering soon after transmission. Thus failing to replicate or gaining wider and further traction and engagement. A campaign that would suffer serious atrophy, failing to last the course of a long period.

The COVID-19 Coronavirus is deadly. We need to ensure we use every weapon in our armoury available to communicators.

Memes and storymemes will be critical in the war against the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Pass it on.


* https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/trust-politicians-falls-sending-them-spiralling-back-bottom-ipsos-mori-veracity-index

More about Andy Green:

Andy enjoys a portfolio career spanning being an Associate with four POR and ecommerce agencies across the UK, university lecturing, conference and motivational speaker (where he teaches pessimism can be your best friend), and is founder of a social enterprise tackling the crisis in the decline of Social Capital in our society.  He has lectured and run workshops in every Continent on the planet, except for South America.  Andy is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, and of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.  Andy is a judge on five industry award schemes.  He has an intertest in memes; he created the “Blue Monday” meme to demonstrate how you can turn the most depressing day of the year into positive opportunity and the ”Twixmas” meme, celebrating the five days between the Christmas and New year public holidays as a time for doing social good.

Andy is also a published author.  His titles include “Creativity ion Public Relations” and “Tubespiration”.

Website:  http://www.storystartshere.today

Further reading on memes:

The COVID-19 Meme project, Kenya:  https://twitter.com/covid19memeske

Smithsonian Magazine:  What defines a meme?  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-defines-a-meme-1904778/

The meme library on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/krisogley

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