Football tournaments can be a time of joy and rejoicing. But they have an ugly side too. Domestic violence can peak during them. So how do we communicate?
by Helen MacBean
With the football violence on the streets of France at the centre of the media’s Euro 2016 coverage, it’s easy to forget about the violence and abuse happening behind closed doors. Sadly, with every international football tournament we see a significant increase of domestic abuse reports to police – in some cases by up to a third.
Some police forces are attempting to fight this trend by using communications campaigns alongside enforcement work. They’re warning perpetrators not to ‘kick off’ during UEFA Euro 2016 or they’ll be ‘shown the red card’, and ‘blow the whistle on domestic abuse’ to avoid being ‘sent down’.
But domestic abuse perpetrator campaigns present unique challenges for comms professionals, and there’s more to these campaigns than just cleverly-worded posters and news releases.
Abusive behaviour is often picked up in childhood and may be seen by the perpetrator as being completely normal. For a perpetrator communications campaign to work, it would first need to convince perpetrators of the consequences of their behaviour, both in and beyond their intimate relationships.
The campaign authors also face difficulties in defining their audience. Domestic abuse perpetrators come from all walks of life and their crimes are committed behind closed doors, normally with only one – reluctant and terrified – witness.
Thankfully, previous perpetrator-focused campaigns have taught us which tactics work and which ones don’t. Schools of thought such as behavioural economics – the study of the psychological factors that drive people’s behaviour and decision making – also provide useful insights for communications professionals working to change perpetrator behaviour.
Five things we’ve learnt about perpetrator campaigns from Euro 2016
1. Perpetrators are more responsive to a potential loss than a potential gain. In fact we all are. Losing something we already have has a much more powerful influence over us than gaining something new.
West Yorkshire Police’s ‘don’t lose it all for football’ campaign frames the impact of domestic abuse as a loss to the perpetrator, implying that they will lose their family, job, freedom and self-respect if they continue their abuse.
West Mercia Police has also used the language of loss aversion in its campaign posters. By highlighting the fact that perpetrators of domestic abuse may lose access to the victim’s home (which could also be their own home), they give perpetrators a strong reason to reconsider their behaviour.
2. Emotive language can have a big impact. This is based on the idea that people are guided more by their emotions than by logic. West Mercia Police uses emotive language in its Euro 2016 domestic abuse posters, which include words from genuine domestic abuse reports received by their call handling centre.
3. The risk of being punished is a more effective deterrent to perpetrators than the severity of the punishment itself. This is rooted in behavioural economics and means that campaigns warning perpetrators that they could face a long prison sentence are less likely to be effective than those that warn perpetrators of increased police activity in their area – even if the prison sentence is shorter.
This is difficult to apply in a domestic abuse context because the crime takes place in the home, well away from the police’s notice, meaning perpetrators of domestic abuse may be less likely to take this type of warning seriously. However, by directly targeting specific groups of perpetrators, such as those already known to the police, this tactic can still have an impact.
North Wales Police’s ‘#StopItChangeIt’ campaign and West Yorkshire Police’s ‘don’t lose it all for football’ campaign have both openly publicised the fact that they are targeting serial perpetrators and perpetrators wanted on warrant with enforcement activity. By warning these groups that they are on the police’s radar, and that their chances of being arrested are high, these campaigns aim to make perpetrators reconsider their behaviour.
4. Including a call to action is essential. In any comms campaign you would expect to see a website or helpline number so that the campaign’s audience can find out more information. Campaigns aimed at perpetrators are no exception.
In fact, interviews with perpetrators carried out prior to a campaign run by the Australian government in 2000 showed unanimous support for a campaign that focused on signposting perpetrators to sources of support.
Despite this, the majority of the Euro 2016 perpetrator campaign materials only contain helpline numbers and websites for victim support services, not for perpetrators. The argument for including a victim helpline number is a strong one – after all, it is important that victims know where they can get help – but there is no reason why they can’t include both victim and perpetrator helplines.
North Wales Police’s ‘#StopItChangeIt’ posters are a good example of this, with victim and perpetrator support information listed in separate sections.
5. Perpetrators are more likely to respond when non-judgemental language is used. This was another finding from the Australian Government’s campaign. The perpetrators interviewed reacted negatively to messages such as ‘real men don’t hit women’.
North Wales Police’s ‘#StopItChangeIt’ campaign poster uses neutral language and urges perpetrators to seek help to change their behaviour, rather than shaming them into changing.
What else do we know about perpetrator campaigns?
Some of the most effective perpetrator campaigns are those that focus on the impact of domestic abuse on children.
Hull Primary Care Trust ran a social marketing campaign to increase referrals to its ‘Strength to Change’ perpetrator programme. Researchers found that most of the men who voluntarily contacted the service were fathers.
The researchers speculated that the men were motivated to contact the service because they were concerned about the impact of their domestic abuse on their children, or that they were worried they would lose access to their children. ‘Becoming a better father’ was listed as a key motivator for these men to try to change their abusive behaviour.
Measuring the impact of perpetrator campaigns
The campaigns mentioned in this post are still ongoing, and their impact is unknown at this stage.
We know that domestic abuse is seriously under reported, and the cases we know about are the tip of the iceberg.
Domestic abuse campaigns – whether targeted at victims or perpetrators –often result in an increase in reports to police, simply because they increase victims’ confidence in the police. This means that reporting figures are unreliable when it comes to measuring the impact of perpetrator campaigns.
Therefore, unless communications professionals get creative with their performance metrics – focusing on alternative outcomes, such as perpetrator helpline calls and self-referrals to perpetrator services – the true impact of these campaigns will never be known.
Helen MacBean is a freelance writer with experience of public sector communications.