Why Isn't COVID Communication Working?
By Grant Ainsley | Tips | [comments] | Posted [date]
So much about the COVID19 pandemic has changed since last March, but one thing that has remained consistent is the way governments have communicated with Canadians. It's a daily barrage of politicians and medical officials talking about the latest numbers and advising us what to do to stay safe.
I've seen a growing number of comments from communications experts in social media that are questioning the government strategy. Maybe it's time for something different? Maybe it's time to communicate in ways that will impact the people who haven't been listening, or don't want to listen?
While I have no argument that a different approach needs to be taken, I don't think it will make much of a difference.
Same Old, Same Old
For more times than any of us want to remember, each afternoon the governments of Alberta and British Columbia have trotted their top medical doctors into an empty room. They’ve stood in front of a podium, with flags in the background and read a prepared statement before taking questions from reporters over the phone.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Dr. Bonnie Henry normally provide the latest numbers on daily infections, talk about changes in COVID programs and policies and often give people of their provinces pep talks to help them get through the pandemic. We’re all in this together and we’ll get out of it together, they keep telling us.
Other provinces do things somewhat differently. In Ontario, as an example, Premier Doug Ford is still more front and centre than most other political leaders. It’s safe to say though the response from each province, and the federal government, has been to put political leaders and medical officials in front of the media almost every day of the pandemic to provide updates.
Is it working? Should something different be done in terms of communication? Have people turned off listening to these people?
The biggest question of all is, whether different forms of communication can change behaviour and get more people to take the virus seriously and change their habits.
Newsmakers of the Year
Before we rush to talk about what’s wrong with this way of communicating about COVID, let’s take a moment to talk about what’s right about it.
Since Hinshaw, Henry and others held their first news conferences, the coverage of each event has been extensive. Reporters covering each presser have been live Tweeting what was reported and said. The latest numbers on case counts, deaths and hospitalizations have been reported almost immediately and then recapped on the evening news and throughout the evening on Canada’s all-news channels before appearing in the morning papers.
I can’t think of a story in my life that has received so much media coverage over an extended period of time. There’s no doubt the information governments want us to hear is getting communicated through the media.
If there was a vote taken for Newsmakers of the Year in Alberta and BC, Drs. Hinshaw and Henry would be runaway winners.
The question remains then, why are so many people not following the advice they’re getting? Why are so many people not wearing masks in public, and why are we seeing record numbers of cases more than nine months into the pandemic?
Don't Shoot the Message
Maybe it is time to look at different ways to communicate the information? Let’s face it, having health officials and politicians talking about the pandemic got stale a long time ago.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for advertising campaigns to feature people who had COVID talk about the damage it did to their bodies and their lives? Perhaps a campaign could focus on the friends and relatives of people who died from COVID talking about their loss? A long time ago, anti-smoking campaigns ran ads like this for years. I’m not an advertising expert, but I know far fewer people smoke than when I was a kid. Maybe something that would shock people would work?
Perhaps something creative needs to be done to get to the people who are against wearing masks and yell about their personal freedoms? Then there are others who follow the rules when it’s convenient, but when little Johnny needs a party for his 5th birthday, the whole neighbourhood gets invited.
Mind you, the words “government” and “creative advertising campaign” are rarely used in the same sentence. Governments always seem far more concerned about communicating the cold hard facts and staying away from anything that might offend a few people. Case in point is the TV commercial now being run that shows Dr. Theresa Tam sitting behind a desk telling Canadians to wash their hands. I can’t imagine a better way of wasting tax dollars than having a health official tell us the same things she’s been saying at news conferences for nine months. The difference is, you and I are paying for those ads.
I have one more question and it’s probably the most important one of all.
Would a creative communications or advertising campaign make a real difference in changing the behaviour of Canadians who refuse to wear a mask, social distance and change their lifestyles in a pandemic?
Let me share my opinion. I never thought a public health crisis such as a pandemic would become so political. I also never believed so many people would ignore simple messages that could save their life and the lives of others.
One thing the pandemic has shown us is there are a lot of stubborn people with different views. Some refuse to wear masks, others continue to see their relatives because they think they can’t give the virus to family members, while others somehow think it’s all a hoax.
Does anyone really think an advertising campaign could talk some sense into the people at that anti-mask protest in Calgary over the weekend?
What do you think? Would better communication make a difference?
Photo credits: Maple Ridge News and CBC