Coronavirus communications – mistakes we must learn from

The Shiffter is literally about cleaning up 💩 but it’s also a metaphor to look at other problems – hence the ‘Fix it‘ blog.

At the very top level, there have been some fundamental slip-ups.

As a former communications manager in the public sector, I’m loathe to criticise the hard work of the professionals up and down the UK tasked with communicating throughout the Covid crisis – so I won’t! Many of them haven’t had a break since the start of the pandemic as they’ve worked on the immediate issues and the fallout of the impact of the virus on their communities, in particular the vulnerable. Well done to them for their excellent work – good job 👍🏾. However, at the very top level, there have been some fundamental mistakes in strategy.

They think it’s all over – but it isn’t

With any major incident or emergency there are two main phases:

  • the emergency phase – when you deal with the immediate threats to minimise the danger to life and keep people and property safe, and
  • the recovery phase – which covers putting measures in place to return to normality (work on this phase can begin in the background during the emergency phase)

In March, the nation went into lockdown, a lockdown which incidentally was much stricter than the recent two. As it was so strict, it worked. The number of infections and hospital admissions went down.

While the lockdown had worked, the emergency was far from over, but sadly, this is where the government, and this isn’t a political dig by the way, sent the wrong message. Restrictions were slowly lifted after the successful lockdown to try and get the country back to some form of normality, but critically, in June, the daily Downing Street press briefings came to a stop. Bad move.

I’ll just make sure it’s out..

By way of analogy, when the fire service attends an incident, the firefighters don’t jump back into their appliances when the fire they’re putting out is still smouldering. They stick around and make damned sure that the fire is out and has no chance of starting again. Unfortunately, stopping the daily press briefings did the opposite. When they were running, whatever you thought of them, their sheer existence highlighted that the nation was in a state of emergency. Stopping them signalled that we were no longer in a dangerous situation. Inevitably, this had a consequential impact on people’s behaviour leading to a predictable increase in cases. Let’s be clear, nobody wants to live in fear, but it was a bad move to effectively walk away from this incredibly important issue and give the impression that the emergency was over. Was there something more important to deal with?

We’re currently in lockdown number three, and while vaccinations have begun at a great pace (and well done to everyone who has helped to achieve this) we’re far from being out of the woods yet. There are many unknowns, such as whether or not those who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus, so the government really needs to have a plan for the next six months or so, rather than pondering what their voters will think of them or pandering to the extremists in their party who deny the science and believe that strict measures are an overreaction. The briefings need to keep going and the messaging needs to improve…and we need to set realistic expectations about the months ahead, rather than raising hopes that we’ll be back to normal in the Spring.

A YouGov poll showed that 20% won’t take the vaccine.

A YouGov poll showed that 80% of people in the UK are likely to take the vaccine. Sounds positive until you consider that it means that 20%, ie one in five, won’t. Last week The Guardian reported on a SAGE survey which indicated that “72% of black people” are unlikely to take the vaccine. Both of these findings are pretty scary when you consider that we’re dealing with a highly infectious virus and that success relies on as many people taking up the vaccine as possible. Thankfully, efforts are being made to engage BAME communities and those nervous about taking the jab. Concerns are also being voiced about the number of people saying that they’ll ignore the current social distancing rules once they’ve been vaccinated, even though we don’t know if they can still pass the virus on to others.

The latest UCL Covid-19 Social Study report (13 January 2021) showed that 62% of those surveyed, who had Covid-19, isolated for the required time – which means that 38% didn’t. It also highlighted that 57% of those who exhibited symptoms had never requested a test for the virus, despite the guidance. Humans, eh?

These issues were pretty easy to predict and highlight that we are a long way from the finish line (oooh look at me using a sporting metaphor), so now, more than ever, the government needs to be strong and clear in its messaging to show that the emergency is far from over – particularly when new, more infectious strains are emerging.

Time to be bold on messaging

One of the biggest frustrations I’ve had is the nature of the top-line messaging during the pandemic. From the very start, government messaging has praised people for their compliance. Consistently, it has failed to criticise those who don’t do the right thing – until about a week ago, after the horse had already bolted months earlier.

In any communications, you tailor your messaging to specific audiences. It’s known as segmentation. But there hasn’t been much of that – unless you count the social media messages that frustrated members of the public have resorted to in response to those who don’t do their bit.

I’ve used the phrase ‘those who don’t do their bit’. It includes people who require education (see below), but moreover it includes people who are downright selfish and ignorant, and the idiots who believe that Covid-19 is just a conspiracy theory.

Anyway, back to the point. As mentioned, the top-level messaging has been focused on patting the public on the back for doing the right thing and not pointing the finger at those who have wilfully ignored the rules and guidance. Everyone I speak to is utterly frustrated by seeing people ignoring the basic social distancing rules, to the extent of exasperation. Why should they bother? What’s the point? I should add here that this isn’t from what they have seen in the media; it’s from their personal experiences when they have ventured out of their homes. Stronger messaging is required which very clearly says, “Don’t be a selfish jerk!”.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the government probably hasn’t been critical of the so called ‘small minority’ is that it doesn’t want to lose their votes. However, the majority of people would prefer the government to be tougher, evidenced time and time again in surveys – so why are they alienating the bigger audience? Why would you not criticise the ‘tiny’ minority? Unless it is actually a pretty significant minority.

What type of messaging will influence compliance?

Behavioural psychologists argue that we have to keep using positive, back patting messages and that the public won’t do the right thing if bad behaviour is highlighted. Far be it from me to disagree with professors in behavioural science, but I will and here’s why:

  • Studies and researchers refer to ‘good’ compliance being something positive. But it isn’t. When you’re faced with a highly infectious virus which spreads exponentially ‘good’ compliance isn’t enough, you need ‘excellent’ compliance;
  • Secondly, the argument that raising awareness of non-compliance will mean that others won’t comply may theoretically have some truth in it, but it is flawed. There has been a fundamental lack of ‘behave yourself’ messaging targeted at those who flout the rules, so there is nothing against which to qualify that assertion;
  • Publicity about illegal mass gatherings in the media has been highlighted as something which will make people feel less compliant as visuals of such dramatic rule breaking will stick in their minds. I’m afraid I disagree. People are fed-up with the lack of compliance they see when they are forced to mix with others, such as on shopping trips. I see it myself every time I go out. OK, the majority of people are compliant, but a significant minority are not – and they will spread it to others they are in contact with who are doing their best to observe the rules. And once again, don’t forget that the virus spreads exponentially;
  • Critics of criticising (if you know what I mean) say that if you tell someone not to do something, they are more inclined to do it. In an interview on the Today Programme last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock concurred with this view citing the cliché that if you tell someone not to think of an elephant, they immediately think of an elephant. That seems to make sense then? No. This too is flawed. If I said to you, “Don’t take all your clothes off and run down the street shouting ‘I love Dominic Cummings’’, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t.

Am I just moaning? No I’m not. My message to the government is to get a backbone and face the facts. Be firm and you’ll be thanked for it. Stop being overoptimistic – in your overoptimistic belief in the public and in the timescale for a return to normality.

But it’s not just about being tough; education is also important…

WTF does exponential mean? And how scary is the R number?

Another big frustration of mine has been the lack of creativity in the overall messaging. At a time when we have so many communications tools to hand, we’ve relied on slogans including “Hands. Face. Space.” and “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”, which in fairness are pretty good. There’s also been a great reliance on TV advertising, with traditional messaging which you tend to switch off to after a while.

There needs to be more creativity to get the message across and engage people. There could be much better use of animation from the start, by which I don’t mean cartoons, rather animation which educates people on the risks. Animation is easy to put together, interactive, engaging and pretty cheap – and, of course, social media friendly. Here are few examples of how it could have been deployed:

  • a visual representation of a street with six or so homes – each with different numbers of occupants, eg from one to five. For a single person household, you can illustrate an infected occupant in a different colour or with a throbbing appearance and show how after a couple of weeks there is nowhere for the virus to go and it dies. Similarly, for the households with more than one person you can illustrate how, after a little longer, due to social isolation, there is nowhere to go for the virus and it will once again ultimately die out in that home;
  • you can also use it to show the opposite – ie people not complying and showing how it spreads and causes more infection and deaths and moves to other households;
  • again, you can use the same principle to demonstrate how distancing, for example in supermarkets, works.

Education is the key here. It’s clear that one of the issues – and sadly it would appear to be at government level too – is that people don’t understand what exponential means. It doesn’t mean big. It means that it grows quicker and quicker the more it grows. To be fair, it isn’t easy to explain in words; even the online definitions at Merriam-Webster and don’t add much clarity. The Cambridge Dictionary probably offers the best definition:

An exponential rate of increase becomes quicker and quicker as the thing that increases becomes larger.

But it’s still a bit wishy washy as it doesn’t quite get across the gravity when we’re discussing a lethal virus. This is another reason why graphical representation is important. At the aforementioned press briefings, the graphical representations taken straight from Microsoft Excel were a little complex and often, overly detailed.

Better visuals would have had more impact, however I imagine there wasn’t enough time between the pre-press briefing briefing (if you know what I mean) and the actual briefings to put them together. The briefings, and other communications, often referred to the ‘R rate’. The problem is it centred on a huge number, That number is ‘one’! Once again, it is difficult to get across how a figure of 1.1 is much scarier than 1 and how 1.3 is a disaster. It doesn’t really get exponential across, does it? Why not create a better indicator, showing the predicted number of infections after a few weeks (extrapolated from the R number) as the barometer? You’d then be in a position where you’re displaying the tiny R number as something legitimately scary in figures of tens of thousands. It would help get the severity of the situation across.

In a simple way, this short clip showing the impact of a drop of water is a clear, yet dramatic, illustration of how exponential looks. Even in slow-mo it shows how the impact of a tiny trigger spreads quickly.

Here endeth the lecture

So what am I saying? Put simply, we need more depth to Covid communications. Just using top line messages wears off. We need to educate people and be tougher on those who don’t play ball (yet another sporting metaphor). Think about it. It’s pretty simple. In a work environment with a colleague, or even with a child at home, if you explain why you want something done, they’ll do a better job. And at the same time, when the majority of people, whose votes politicians probably want, are keen on stronger action, it’s in their interest – they’re pushing at an open door. And, of course, the daily briefings with questions from the media need to keep going. Maybe vary the content a little – but they definitely need to stay.

And another thing

Nothing to do with Covid-19. The letter ‘H’. It is pronounced ‘aitch’, not ‘haitch’. I know that language evolves over time, but there’s a difference between evolution and degradation.

Attention media outlets – fine your correspondents when they say ‘haitch’ as they’re helping to spread the sloppiness. You need to set an example! 😉

By Kam Mistry

One thought on “Coronavirus communications – mistakes we must learn from”

  1. Not to mention the often forgotten 1-5 “Covid Threat Level”, which I had completely forgotten existed until the announcement where it was raised to 5 (where I assume it languishes).

    That in itself didn’t seem like too bad an idea – but with little to connect it to any actual action or effect, it soon seemed pretty pointless and was too easy to forget!

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