Communicating Information to the Public during the Coronavirus Crisis

The manner of communicating the coronavirus crisis to the public has been woeful, if not dismal. The message about just how serious the outbreak will be hasn’t been getting through. Arguably, it had no chance of ever doing so. The immediate confusion that has arisen from the UK government’s “lockdown that isn’t a lockdown” is a case in point. Unsolicited comment from politicians and self-appointed experts is muddying the water. Contradictory information and advice from NGO’s and the media are exacerbating the lack of public comprehension. In just one example, the at-a-glance guidance from WHO states that appropriate social distancing is one metre apart in contrast to the UK government’s two-metre ‘rule’.

Less than 24 hours after the prime minister’s television address on the evening of the 23rd March, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has felt it necessary to clarify who or what constitutes an essential worker or occupation. He only succeeded in confusing matters further with his on-the-fly comments about construction workers and tradesmen. Our politicians and even our senior medical advisers seem incapable of communicating the nature of Covid-19 and what they want us all to do in response to an impending healthcare crisis. The time for equivocation has long passed and the dissemination of simple, coherent and direct public messages needs to be addressed in hours, not days.

There has been a complete absence of public information communications produced and created by media professionals who are more capable than politicians of tapping into public sensibilities. That needs to change, and it needs to change fast. If the respective governments of the UK cannot recognise, much less commission communications for television and radio, then media professionals need to reach out and make sure that our leaders understand that the resources are there to be used.

The ‘Tell Sid’ campaign to promote the sell-off of British Gas was supported by far greater government investment of time, money and effort than any of the public communications so far delivered about the spread of the coronavirus. More than that the message has to hit home in a visceral way. ‘Tell Sid’ was hard to avoid. Unless we want to see coronavirus tear through our healthcare system like a Force-12 hurricane then the campaign around coronavirus has to be impossible to ignore.

What we’ve been given so far are NHS PowerPoint presentations delivered via social media and tone-deaf pronouncements from senior health advisers. In Scotland, the chief medical officer there, Catherine Calderwood, came across like a replicant from a third Blade Runner movie that never saw the light of day. This is the communication age, yet there is a complete failure to communicate effectively to a modern audience. This means that there is, unhappily, less likelihood of achieving vital objectives. It has taken the opposition weeks to notice these failings and the national news media even longer than that. The Scottish newspaper, ‘The National’ only realised yesterday that the government hasn’t so far spent a bean on public awareness campaigning in contrast to the Brexit bus shennagans.

Yes, things are moving fast. Yes, there are many things that are poorly understood about the virus. But that’s no excuse for this failure to communicate. The implications of wholesale transmission of coronavirus from the population at large into the healthcare system are unthinkable and it’s those implications that need to be graphically conveyed to the wider public. The confusion and, importantly, the questioning that has immediately followed the soft lockdown suggests that unambiguous public communications will still be required to guide, if not govern public attitudes and behaviours.

Worse still, neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Boris Johnson, to give two high-profile examples, seemed unable to sing clearly from the same hymn sheet on the closure of pubs, clubs, and restaurants. Johnson was “telling” people to stay home, while Sturgeon was simply “asking” them. They could not both be right. It had to be one thing or another. The immediate outcome was that the public at large took that mixed message and unpicked the case for doing the right thing. This, of course, pales into insignificance beside the initial mixed messages around the insanity of ‘herd immunity’ that earlier emanated from central government. The response should instead have emphasised the time-critical nature of the crisis and this failure could yet cost lives.

Our leadership is relying heavily on social media despite the fact that there is, at best, a debate about how useful it really is when galvanising the public into positive actions and behaviours. Social media, at it’s worst, is a place where political disaffection is spread like poison, reinforcing prejudices and fomenting hostility towards reason and rationality. More importantly, your message, however urgent or true, may yet be muted, ignored or completely disregarded by everyone who isn’t in your tribe.

Our politicians are divisive figures at the best of times, but these are not the best of times. Sturgeon and Johnson may have their fan bases, but half the country is at odds with them. They have no chance of taking the entire public with them while there is an undercurrent of political alienation in the civic population. That’s before we start counting all the people who would not, or could not vote.

It seems incredible too that the reaction from communications professionals appears to have been non-existent. I say again, things are moving fast, but that simply means we have to move faster still. We have to move fast and fix things. Obstacles to collaboration such as social distancing, social isolation, lockdown, shutdown and redundancy are almost irrelevant to the production of audio-visual communications. Everyone in the media has the capability of working remotely and it shouldn’t need saying that technology has empowered us to work together even though we may be miles apart from one another.

Similarly, the media industry, broadly defined, is fully networked and, compared to the NHS, appropriately resourced to make public information communications that have a chance of truly reaching a target audience. In many cases, there are media entities that are directly or indirectly supported by government who should be stepping up to make themselves available. Perhaps, things are already in motion behind the scenes although that seems unlikely given that we needed to ramp up the quality, quantity and efficacy of information about the coronavirus threat three weeks ago.

It’s true that there are complex concepts, arguments and imperatives that have to be distilled into a handful of clear, concise and coherent messages. But they also have to be emotive, impactful and inclusive. Soundbites won’t do. There have to be evocative images, human stories, and incontrovertible truths that are so affecting that they become contagious. It is not enough to appeal to the better judgement and better nature of the public. Our public communications need to show everyone what a better person with good judgement looks like, and how he or she behaves in a crisis. If you think the public doesn’t need to be told these things then look around, look at yourself, look at your neighbour, look at the response so far and ask yourself whether we will get away with ‘muddling through’ this time around.

M. Stephen Clark.