Covid19 Communications in Crisis


Written by:

John Jackson

Section Editor

Business News Wales


On the 23rd March as we entered into lockdown there was a genuine sense of national togetherness.

We all knew what we needed to do, the rules were clear and by and large embraced. Entering into this uncharted territory I suspect many people were concerned to protect their loved ones, and a wave of community spirit came into play with people offering to help others. Windows were adorned with rainbows and the Thursday night tradition of clapping for carers began, and all of this was happening at a time when the infection figures were rising dramatically, and tragically the daily death count kept on rising.

We then saw the R infection rate come down and the Lockdown started to be lifted, and this is where it all started to go wrong. At the time there should have been strong and clear messaging to explain that we aren’t returning to “normal” and that we are still living with a pandemic. This ought to have resulted in messaging to reinforce the need for everyone to continue to take all the necessary precautions. Instead, and whilst I don’t want to make this political, in so many conversations I’ve had around this, the Dominic Cumminigs “incident” keeps being mentioned as the point where the UK Government lost trust amongst significant members of the population. As a result we witnessed groups partying, congregating and socialising as if the pandemic had been beaten. In England people were even being encouraged to go back to their offices, and we were all incentivised to go out to eat in restaurants.

As a result, the R-rate began to increase again and now we’re in a position where the devolved nations have taken more significant actions in well intentioned attempts to protect their populations, and England is gradually moving more of its counties into their highest tier of restrictions. Understandably, people are getting tired of Covid19. This is being exacerbated by the way the pandemic is being reported in the media and also by the messages and instructions being given to citizens.

I’ve deliberately kept this “story so far” as brief as possible as I suspect you know it all too well already. You may even be tired of all things Covid19, and that’s perfectly understandable. Yet at the same time I think it's fair to acknowledge we need to refocus our efforts to re-engage people to actively take personal responsibility and help get the R-rate down and keep it down. To achieve this Covid19 communications need to change, and change quickly.

This isn’t impossible to achieve, and I’d suggest the following course of action:

  • Conversations with editors. It’s time to stop giving time to people whose views are counter to the measures that need to be taken to control the pandemic. This isn't balanced journalism, it's sensationalist and only serves to encourage people to break the rules. For example, radio phones in shows that pose leading questions that encourage, and then broadcast, views of individuals who are not representative, and whose views put public health at risk need to be called out, and stopped. It's time to take this pandemic seriously, and not reduce it to a form of lunchtime entertainment. News reports that spend more time focussing on the counter view of one individual rather than the increasing death rate, need to seriously reconsider their editorial stance. This is a time to focus the nation on getting to grips with Covid19 and not making following the rules seem like a lifestyle choice.
  • Change the script. For example, stop staying Covid Restrictions and instead say Covid Measures. If we keep continuing to make being responsible seem like a punishment we will continue to see people choosing to flout the rules.
  • Be honest and show genuine empathy. Acknowledge that for some people lockdown measures have a greater impact and that none of us are enjoying the situation we are in. At the same time emphasise the important role every citizen has to play in getting the R-rate down and then keeping it down.
  • Total clarity is essential, when any measures are lifted it's essential to explain that “normality” hasn’t returned and that to keep the R-rate down people have to continue to be immaculate with the social distancing in line with government instructions. Emphasise that this is the only way in the coming months that any sense of normality can safely return and that if everyone does their best the economic impact of Covid19 will be minimised.
  • Explain the alternative, if people don’t behave responsibly, the R-rate will go back up, we’ll go back into lockdown, and that each time we do an increasing number of businesses will fail.
  • Set a clear goal: To achieve a continued level of low R-rate stability until such time as an effective vaccine is in place. Encourage everyone to play their part in achieving this goal. Keep a strong, continuous and creative focus on communicating this.
  • Create a series of digital campaigns for social media. Use faces and voices that resonate with specific target groups across the age ranges. This should prove far more effective that one size fits all public information announcements.
  • Take into account the need to win people over. We need to shift from telling people what to do, and instead invite them to accept and even embrace the need to take the pandemic seriously.

Effective communications have the ability to play a significant and positive role in our battle to bring the pandemic under control. At present we aren’t being effective communicators, the need to focus singularly on getting the R-rate down and keeping it down has been undermined by the trivialisation of the pandemic. We should never have got to a place where not being able to buy a T-shirt in a supermarket becomes headline news. I would feel reassured if the Welsh Government was able to put in place a communications strategy to help us all to become part of a Wales that stands up to Covid19 and gets it under control.