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Lessons in Communications from the Global Response to COVID-19

by Tristan Paci

Pandemics are in large part crises of communication. They are times when people must be persuaded to put their lives on hold and take steps to battle an enemy they cannot see. Never has this been more clear than it is today. In the global response to COVID-19, governments around the world have shown just how critical effective communications can be in times of uncertainty.

One year on since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the messaging strategies that different countries have employed in response to this crisis and reflect on the broader lessons in communications that can be learned for leaders of all kinds — whether you’re in government, industry or the non-profit sector. Below are four key takeaways to consider.

To rally any team and navigate through treacherous waters, you need people to believe in you. The same goes for governments in public health crises, and it’s why building and maintaining public trust during COVID-19 has been so important. A pivotal way to do that, as historian John Barry writes, is “to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.” Looking at how different countries have fared, you find that governments that have in fact treated people like adults, set realistic expectations, and used clear, consistent messages based on facts have had more success in bringing the public along and containing the virus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, for instance, quickly earned a reputation for her straight talk and transparency, often on Facebook Live, which has helped her convince New Zealanders to accept severe restrictions that have almost entirely quashed the virus. President Donald Trump’s approach, on the other hand, which was based around misleading the public from the start, has exemplified how dishonest and contradictory messaging can sow confusion and undermine the objective at hand. His behavior after he himself contracted coronavirus — violating countless safety protocols — perhaps encapsulated his failed response best. Examples like these show us the value of emphasizing clarity and consistency in communications from leaders.

Perhaps equally important for retaining the trust of your audience during a crisis, and making sure your message is received, is knowing who should be delivering that message in the first place. Naturally, that depends on who your audience is. In response to COVID-19, many governments have leaned on subject matter experts to calm uncertainty and guide the public through lifestyle changes. In South Korea, for example, pandemic communications have been spearheaded by Jung Eun-kyeong, the head of Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This approach has seen success in large part because the messenger suits the audience: in Korea, there is a tradition of trusting bureaucracy, education, and expertise. Today, Jung is seen as a national hero whose words are followed closely. By contrast, in the United States, President Trump has driven most of the messaging around the pandemic from the beginning, overshadowing much of the guidance issued by health professionals. Unlike Korea’s CDC head, President Trump has been an ineffective conduit for health guidance in large part because the American public tends to trust elected officials very little and trusts this president even less when it comes to COVID-19. While there is certainly a considerable level of skepticism for expertise in the U.S., public health authorities are still more trusted and would thus be preferable messengers in this case too. Ultimately, who delivers your message in times of uncertainty should be determined by their ability to command the respect of the audiences you care about.

At a time when all of us are more spread out across more channels than ever before, no one can afford to rely on outdated media strategies to get messages out and break through — that includes governments. Today, it’s critical to reach people where they are. Over the past few months, several leaders have demonstrated how to do this well. One worth mentioning is Dr. Anthony Fauci. His aggressive media blitz has put him in front of cable shows across the political spectrum and also included appearances on more unexpected platforms, such as the Barstool Sports podcast Pardon My Take, late night shows like Desus & Mero, and countless celebrities’ Instagram Lives. This “go everywhere” strategy has allowed Dr. Fauci to reach people who follow the news closely as well as those who might be less engaged in national conversations, like young people. Although these efforts have been undercut by conflicting messaging from The White House, Dr. Fauci’s approach has made him a household name and shown the value of talking to audiences where they spend their time.

Finally, like in any campaign, when it comes to convincing people to follow public health guidelines, good content matters. Though most of the government-produced content put out in recent months has been fairly conventional, there have been some notable cases where countries have gotten more creative. One that stands out is Vietnam, where at the outset of the pandemic the Ministry of Health partnered with a popular Vietnamese choreographer to create a hand-washing dance challenge for TikTok, which quickly went viral. This video is brilliant by itself, but its impact is best understood when considering how it reinforced and extended the reach of an existing campaign to encourage better hygiene practices — a campaign that has helped Vietnam keep deaths to just 35. While there is certainly good reason for more marketers to use TikTok, the larger lesson here is the impact that investing in innovative content can have when it is authentic to the medium and in line with a broader messaging strategy.

As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, the challenges involved in communicating during a public health crisis are difficult to navigate. But they aren’t so different from the ones that anyone trying to get their message out in today’s media environment faces. As the world continues to grapple with this crisis, it’s clear that there is much for leaders both in and outside of government to learn by looking at how various members of the international community have succeeded and failed in responding to the biggest messaging test in modern history.

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