COVID-19: A very complex crisis communications challenge for government

published on April 7 2020
by Michael Dolan, Senior Media & Communications Consultant and Will Ryan, Account Executive.

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Key Points:

  • Move quickly or risk playing catch up
  • Don’t rush to condemn ambiguous COVID-19 messaging from the government
  • Design a strategy to avoid unnecessary damage

 

“A communications strategy is as important to the ultimate impact of COVID-19 as, ultimately, a vaccine or a treatment will be.” – Jack Waterford, former editor of The Canberra Times.

Crisis communication is always challenging, and the COVID-19 pandemic raises the stakes to an unprecedented level. As such, the Government’s job is unenviable, the Australian public wants clarity and consistency, when the societal complexities of simultaneously juggling a health crisis and an economic crisis don’t necessarily cater for it.

Act early

Critical to getting on top of a crisis is the ability to recognise and act as early as possible. So, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly vowed that he would attend the NRL season opener to support his beloved Cronulla Sharks, amongst the escalating fears of COVID-19, he risked repeating the same mistake he made taking a trip to Hawaii at the peak of the bushfire crisis: losing the perception of competence and undermining the severity of the crisis.

Morrison’s Government has since recovered and implemented sensible measures, which look to have had a positive impact at this early stage. The communications operation has become far slicker, with innovative use of digital channels such as the COVID app and WhatsApp communications and allowing an expert in Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy to take a leading role in press conferences.

But underestimating a threat is the first step towards disaster in a crisis, and Morrison isn’t alone.  US President Donald Trump mocked concerns about COVID-19 for weeks, going as far as labelling it a “Democrat hoax.”

In characteristically Trumpian fashion he went on to contradict himself just a couple of weeks later: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

The US now stands at the top of the global count for confirmed cases, and it would not be an exaggeration to suggest Trump’s words will cost American lives.

Communicating against natural instincts

China has been held up by some as an example of how effective taking clear and decisive action can be, however the Chinese lesson comes wrapped in harmful deception. If China had brought the swath of measures it used to control the outbreak in a week earlier, 66% fewer people would have been infected, one study found. Instead, it chose to supress information and crush dissent, even reporting to the World Health Organisation in mid-January that the virus could not be transmitted from human to human.

Of course, whilst the Xi Jingping government appears to have got on top of the virus now, as a centralised, authoritarian state, China is perhaps better placed to manage a pandemic than liberal Western democracies. It can impose strict control over its message and critically how those messages are reported.

Anecdotally, the problem for Western governments is when it tells the public not to do something, it doesn’t always follow. On the one hand this is a symptom of the erosion of trust in the political class in recent years. It is also a cultural clash; Governments with traditionally libertarian instincts would opt first for, “we urge you not to go outside”, as opposed to “go outside or risk time in jail.”

That could perhaps explain why state communications have been constructively ambiguous; the longer a public continues as close to normal as is safely possible, the less of a hit on the economy and the longer society can enjoy the civil liberties that have shaped it for so long.

Constructive ambiguity is a tactic used in negotiations to obtain concessions from two sides with competing interests. It has been used in peace and trade agreements around the world, and in the case of COVID-19 the competing sides are the health of the nation and the economy.

Ardern’s example

But there are examples that challenge this theory. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s communication has been unambiguous throughout the pandemic. Her government was quick to impose a lockdown, a text message was sent out to all New Zealanders, detailing rules and regulations of the lockout, Arden also hosted an impromptu Facebook Live session where she took questions from the public from her couch.

The New Zealand government was also quick (comparatively) to release its COVID-19 modelling, a move the Australian government has just followed, after sustained resistance due to concerns over misinterpretation.

It should also be noted that managing and communicating a crisis in a country with the population roughly the size of Melbourne is a different beast to one of over 25 million, but the speed, clarity and transparency of the Ardern government has been impressive.

Be prepared

It would be unfair to compare the crisis challenges faced by the Government with those of businesses, but smart leaders will watch how Governments act and learn through their mistakes. Nuanced messages have helped governments navigate the early stages of the crisis as best they can, but this should not be the path businesses take.

If you don’t already have a COVID-19 communications strategy in place, it’s time to fix that. The actions you take and words you use now will have long-term consequences for your business beyond the end of the crisis.