How viral can combat virus – what we need is a coronavirus meme strategy

To tackle the Coronavirus we urgently need a meme strategy – using one form of virus to counter-act another.

And current government health advice that it’s okay to shake hands could be fundamentally wrong: not on health grounds – but for missing a golden communications opportunity.

The corona virus presents an extraordinarily 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.

The ‘Spinal Tap strategy’ of turning up to Volume 11 won’t work either.

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.

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:

1 Coherent: is identifiable and readily recognised

2 Sticky: its totality ‘sticks’, is remembered relatively intact

3 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. So 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.

Devising a memes and storymemes strategy

Using the new Dublin Conversations Comms Canvas – created through a non-commercial global network of practitioners – provides a valuable tool to guide our thinking and planning.

Using its ‘5 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 you enables 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 5 Simple Rules for the challenge of the Coronavirus campaign we discover:

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

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.

Liked – although no one will ‘like’ the 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?

In an interview on BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ (March 3) Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care advised listeners that shaking hands posed a minimal health risk. This may be sensible, sound, medical advice, but is it throwing away a great communications opportunity?

The ‘Elbow Bump’ or ‘Elbow Greet’ is a meme already gaining traction. Originally believed to be inspired by a Hawaiian leper colony – where instead of a handshake you touch elbows – gained visibility during previous Avian, Swine and Ebola epidemics.

The Elbow Bump or Greet presents an opportunity: it is an easy idea to copy and do while signifying the wider message of minimising contact with others. Every time you do it prompts a reminder of the wider background messages on the Coronavirus.

Rather than advising that it is okay to shake hands and dismissing the Elbow Bump or Greet as unnecessary or trivial a precious, golden communications opportunity is in danger of being ignored – a meme that serves as a reminder of the constant need to maintain behaviour of keeping one’s distance from others. It would be foolish to waste.

Words are tools – use them with surgical precision

Current health advice is to ‘wash hands regularly’. Yet this is insufficient.

Personal anecdotal evidence suggests men have a poor track record of ‘washing hands’. Many a time I’ve despaired witnessing guys not washing their hands in public toilets (as much as 50% I would say).

And even when they do wash them, it can be a cursory wash. Here I hold my possibly less-than-fully-washed hand up. When she was young, my mother won a ‘Clean Hands Certificate’. She would often remind me how I would never receive such an accolade. From experience, men, even when they do wash their hands, it is often a cursory encounter with water.

Yet the current Corona guidance is not just asking people to wash hands but requires a very specific and thorough washing procedure. Using the existing terms of ‘wash hands’ is inaccurate and inadequate for the task. Fortunately, there is a relatively well-known term for describing a thorough washing of hands.

It’s called a ‘scrub’.

Rather than just washing hands, with the risk of cursory hand washing, we need to be more specific with a more precise term, ’Scrub’. Instead of urging people to wash hands, the advice should be ‘to scrub’ them. Using more precise words leverages more precise desired outcomes.

Creating a meme architecture

A major challenge in communicating about the Coronavirus is its complexity consisting of:

  • There’s the need to get people to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly
  • There’s the task of managing your actions when sneezing or coughing.
  • There’s the challenge of getting people to be mindful of minimising contact with others.

This complexity necessitates a framework, a structure, an architecture to manage a family of messages.

The most daunting challenge with a meme and storymeme strategy is getting traction, with sufficient critical mass to make it self-generating. Most memes fail. It makes sense where possible to harness available assets. We need to harness where possible existing potent memes.

Fortunately, there are two potential candidate memes ready to be integrated into a Coronavirus campaign.

TheCatch it, Bin it, Kill it’ meme was first launched by the UK government in 2009 to encourage people to reduce the spread of flu. It is still very effective and potent.

There is a need for a central message, serving as an over-arching meme, an anchor-point to hook other memes onto.

This could simply be something as self-evident, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin statement as the #CoronaCode (making use of alliteration to aid its memorability.)

There is another meme that surfaced and gained worldwide traction in response to the global economic crisis of 2007. Originally conceived as a British World War II morale-boosting poster, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ created an emotional connection. It conveyed a sense of stiff upper lip, of British stoicism.

The ‘Carry On’ message could be integrated into an umbrella storymeme to describe the Corona Code with ideas such as #KeepCoronaCalm.

I suspect you think this is crass or cheesy. But you will at least remember it. You now have an ‘idea worm’ in your head. No matter how much you may choose to resist or desist, it will worm its way into your brain and get fresh impetus and renew itself with every supporting prompt.

If space or time is available in a campaign message, a storymeme sandwich could consist of:

Over-arching meme of something like the #CoronaCode or #KeepCoronaCalm supported by:

  • First layer – behaviour change around washing hands
  • Middle filling – use a tissue to catch sneezes and cover coughs
  • Bottom layer – behaviour change around minimising contact with others

For the first layer a storymeme to promote frequent hand scrubbing should be used with ideas such as, #20SecondsScrub, #Scrub20seconds, #Scrub20x12, #Scrubalot etc

For the middle layer the #CatchItBinItKillit would be suitable for the task

For the bottom layer a storymeme focussing on the Elbow Bump or Greet needs to be considered. It doesn’t tell the complete story but signifies keeping distance. Ideas here include #ElbowBump, #ElbowGreet, #ElbowBumptoday.

Benefits of a meme and storymeme architecture and strategy

When cooking and creating memes and stroymemes 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. Where space or time is limited the umbrella meme of #CoronaCode or storymeme of #KeepCoronaCalm (or similar) can be solely used. Time and space permitting, the umbrella meme supported by the storymeme sandwich can be used.

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, 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 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 Coronavirus. Pass it on.



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