OPINION27 August 2020

The rights and wrongs of public messaging in a crisis

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Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of effective messaging in a crisis. What lessons are there from the way that governments have communicated with their citizens during the pandemic? By Farid Jeeawody.

At a time of heightened sensitivity, what our leaders say and how those messages are consumed, interpreted and repeated by citizens can have profound effects on decision-making.

Sometimes inspiring, at other times baffling, political messaging is intended to calm, inform and protect the public. But the different strategies driving their delivery have shown us what is and is not effective, how people do and don’t absorb key messages, and what values leaders need to embody if these messages are to be acted upon at speed and with maximum effect.

We have been looking at the ways different governments have sought to influence behaviour through the Covid-19 crisis and have been working closely with the Australian government. The following captures the lessons we can all learn about how to respond and communicate in more empowering ways.

Simplicity of language
You need to simplify the complex. If you don’t speak the language of the audience you most want to reach, it will be a struggle to get them back.

Policy first, then slogans
Good slogans tend to communicate one core purpose. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives did just that. If we stay at home, fewer people will die. It continues to resonate.

Balance empathy with gravity
People respond to leadership that is reassuring and underpinned by kindness. That’s what empathy is – messaging that is authoritarian or punitive in tone will have the opposite effect.

Nuanced audiences
Clear, positive messaging which is segmented by age, culture and geography is key. One size does not fit all, which means messaging needs to be nuanced.

Informative graphics
If you want to enable people to cope with change, then it is important to use informative graphics to create a framework that allows people to make sense of what is happening and why. Most don’t know the detail, but feel confident as they can see a plan.

Focus on clarity
When people are worried, they want to be told what they should do. Say it simply, say it often and say it loudly. Information needs to be clear, specific and consistent, and focused on how behaviours can protect individuals.

Two-way frequency
At daily press conferences, the two-way dialogue between officials and journalists or members of the public have aided transparency. Pre-recorded messages that give instructions are useful in a political campaign, but in a crisis you need to inspire involvement by talking about direction.

Learn from mistakes
There are bound to be setbacks, so when they happen admit them, explain them and learn from them. No one expects every decision and action to be perfect – admitting missteps is more convincing in terms of public relations than hiding them.

‘We’ not ‘me’
Emphasising a ‘stand together’ principle – in which collaboration, community pride and a responsibility to care for others stems from a sense of civic duty – are far more effective than messages about looking after oneself.

Set out a plan and review it regularly
A concrete plan – tailored for different platforms – maintains behaviour change by helping people to anticipate possible barriers and enablers to adherence, and address these in advance. It is fine to announce measures, but people need to know precisely what this means for their individual circumstances.

Evidence-based honesty
Be honest and open. Which is why it is important to make the data that informs decision-making clear to the public. Alongside it, use real human stories to frame actions being taken.

Better timing
Factual updates help to clarify the situation, but that requires good timing too. Morning sessions help to keep control of the emerging narrative throughout the day and set the tone of debate, rather than fuel speculation about what is going to be announced at the end of the day in what feels like an anti-climactic presentation.

Plan for feedback
Thinking of the potential questions people will ask to the decisions you have made – and then collating suitable answers – is as vital as the decisions themselves.

Incentivise with rewards
People want to know that their sacrifice will lead to benefits. Messaging is more persuasive when it isn’t accompanied by punishment.

Use insight to guide strategy
Ideally, virtual focus groups with a broad ethnic background, age mix and socially diverse audience should help test messaging, bolstered by polling and quantitative and qualitative research data.

Avoid too many cooks
The nuance that makes a message effective is almost always lost when it is written, edited and re-edited by committee. Too many people with too many perspectives usually means that good communication gets replaced with over-engineered, jargon-filled messaging.

React fast to misinformation
When information is dispensed through the internet it does not have to follow strict guidelines for facts and proof, so the challenge for effective communication becomes even more complex. Rebuttals need to be fast and firm.

Farid Jeeawody is a partner at Hall & Partners

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