Covid-19 Is a Public Communications Crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of the traditional public communications model. Information is flowing through multiple pathways — between public health bodies and governments, between governments and the public, and between the media and the public. This chaotic flow of information is creating a feedback loop in which government communication strategies are shaped by public perception, which is in turn shaped by media reporting on the crisis. Adding to the diabolical nature of the problem is the contestability of some key scientific assumptions — even among experts — about the virulence and severity of the virus, forcing politicians to rely on speculation as a tool for managing the public’s expectations.
During a crisis, the textbook leadership response is to create a sense of national unity based on shared hopes and fears, while generating a spirit of togetherness that encourages people to look beyond their own narrow interests. This sounds simple in theory, but the political reality of America’s republican model means different states have vastly different experiences of and responses to the virus. What is more, the threat posed by the virus is not limited to the public health dimension but is also an economic and financial crisis that has affected different people and communities in different ways. There is simply no single national experience that defines the pandemic.
Governments must connect with people’s experiences of the virus
Everyone is in a state of anxiety. But these anxieties are fueled by different fears. For some, they fear for the health and lives of their parents or grandparents, who might be especially vulnerable to the virus. For those who are immuno-compromised or have comorbidities, the virus poses a threat to their own life. For others, the lockdown has destroyed their business and livelihood, forced them out of their job, and kept them isolated from friends and family. Even healthy members of the community cannot escape the debilitating effects of uncertainty when the paychecks stop coming through and employment opportunities disappear. A government backstop helps, but it is not sustainable, either for households or taxpayers.
The virus is at once a monolithic threat to the world and a complex social, economic, and administrative problem that affects people in different ways. The United States is one example, but it is much the same in the European Union, where member states have enjoyed varying degrees of success in containing the virus and mitigating the economic fallout. My home country of Australia is another example, where the Victorian state government has implemented a hard lockdown with curfews and mandatory mask wearing, as opposed to other states where people are free to gather in public places and businesses remain open.
There is a single, identifiable enemy, and yet in the public mind the pandemic is a diffuse set of challenges requiring a combination of policies and effective, nuanced messaging.
Connecting with people and understanding their concerns is the only way political leaders can present a message that resonates. Focusing solely on one aspect of the pandemic will not be effective. Communication is as much about delivery as it is assessing how the message is being absorbed and heeded by the population. If a large part of the population is ignoring or misinterpreting the government’s message, it may not be speaking to some genuine fears and concerns. Governments should speak to the entire country with an empathetic message that demonstrates understanding of the different problems that everyone faces. Analyzing the public’s response to the message is critical because it helps to uncover blind spots and dive deeper into the public’s psychology.
Communication must be realistic and genuine
The public information model is ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Gone are the days when a president or prime minister could walk into the corridor and brief three or four of their preferred journalists, wake up the next morning, and see their message conveyed faithfully in the press and duly parroted by other news outlets. Information is no longer a one-way street. As this crisis has demonstrated, press conferences are still the main medium of crisis communication, backed up by social media and online channels. If you have noticed yourself consuming a lot more over-the-air television in 2020, it is most likely because you are tuning in to these live press conferences to hear directly from state and federal leaders.
The problem with this medium is that politicians tend to overestimate their media ability. They assume that what they say and what is heard and interpreted by viewers are the same thing. There is often a lot of daylight between a message carefully crafted by a group of media experts and what people take away from its delivery.
Communication advisers working in government may be skilled in media management and political wizardry, but if they do not understand communications as a theory, their message, no matter how nuanced, will be lost in a sea of subjective minds.
A key to overcoming this problem is realistic communication and transparency. This means sticking to what is known and provable, rather than engaging in speculation, no matter how tempting it is. Bringing people through a crisis means giving them hope and enabling them to see through the crisis to the other side. If governments present to people a future that is based on best-case scenarios and selective information, they are setting the country up for disappointment and despair. When a situation is evolving fast and our assumptions are highly changeable, speculation is doomed to fail. To communicate realistically, governments must recognize where there are diverging views and avoid staking their entire political and public communications strategy on what is possible, rather than what is likely or known.
This does not mean there is no plan of action or clear objectives. The government should make it clear what it is aiming at, whether that be total eradication, curve management, or herd immunity. This is where most governments have failed. Even those governments that in practice have favored one approach over another are unwilling to articulate this policy preference in terms of an explicit objective. This gives the government more flexibility, but it makes it harder for the population to understand what their social obligations ought to be and how legal measures align with the overall strategy. Realistic communication takes courage and initiative. It marks the threshold between management and leadership.
This is all part of flipping the stakeholder mindset. Speculation must be flipped to facts, uncertainty to mobilization, and concern to trust. This is done through regular engagement and consistency in messaging. Even where there is no immediate end in sight, every crisis has a lifecycle. The role of the leader is to build the bridge to optimism and sustain the realistic hopes of the nation without resorting to short-term confidence games, hiding information, or speculating on what is inherently unknowable.
We need to rely more on our own sense making
Relying on the media as a key vehicle of communication is also problematic, even if it is entirely unavoidable. The media has two functions: news reporting and sense making. It reports facts, although different news outlets will order these facts differently and emphasize some over others. An unwitting viewer not in possession of context may easily get a different impression of the world by watching two different news programs, even though both are presenting — in the most limited sense — the facts.
Then you have the sense-making function, which serves to tell us how we should feel about an issue, who we should blame, who we should support, and what we should think. In a complex world, we need a framework to distil information and help us form actionable conclusions.
These two functions — news reporting and sense making — are becoming more intertwined, to the point where it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.
All of this makes the traditional public communications model of ‘inform, engage, empower’ harder to implement. As the arteries of communication dilate thanks to social media and our digital addictions, we are faced with a barrage of information and misinformation. The bar has been lowered as to what constitutes a story, and social media platforms enable — unintentionally, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt — the curation of one’s own set of news, views, and voices. It makes it harder not just to distinguish the facts from the fake news, but to identify high-quality, balanced news stories from cause-driven reporting or glorified traffic funnels.
As citizens this means we need to take some responsibility for how we engage with the media. Understanding the commercial imperative that drives traditional news outlets and forms of new media, including social media, is essential. Watching press conferences and forming our own view of the government’s message — its consistency and openness — and making our own judgement of the government’s performance is our civic duty during a crisis. We should not avoid the media — but during a crisis we should question more of what we see, hear, and read.
For political leaders, it is impossible to circumvent the media. Even when journalists act in good faith, the message can become corrupted. Clarity, consistency, and transparency are essential. The more governments obfuscate and confuse their message to manage public perception, the more confusion they will create in the community. This unanchors the government from its objectives and breeds a larger credibility problem that can lead to open abuse of the rules. Credibility is critical, especially when the public is being asked to shoulder a significant burden. Once it is lost, it is almost impossible to regain.
The pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of our public communications model, which is many ways has not changed in decades. We still rely on press conferences and media releases to receive the government’s message. However, the rise of social media and a perverse mix of commercial incentives and cause-driven sensationalism has created a challenging media environment that makes it harder for governments to communicate their message clearly. As citizens, we have a duty to exercise our own sense-making abilities to cut through the agendas and false information. But governments also have a responsibility to present its message consistently, openly, and credibly. If they lose the communications battle, they lose the war against Covid-19.