Why Twitter is Backfiring on Dr. Hinshaw
For over seven months, we have been following daily case counts of coronavirus because they give us a quick report card on how we're doing. If numbers are trending down, we feel like our efforts are working to flatten the curve. If they're going the other direction, we know people have to do better.
As numbers in Alberta headed north over the last week or so, I've noticed how Alberta Health Services and the face of the pandemic in Alberta, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, have been telling a different story.
Daily case count numbers have been taking a back seat, all in an attempt by the government to control the COVID message, but it's not helping the image of Dr. Hinshaw.
At the start of the pandemic, Alberta Health Services (AHS) decided Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw should have a Twitter account.
It made sense. It’s a great way to communicate. Eight months later, she has around 100,000 followers and has sent over 2,000 Tweets. Her messages also bring a huge amount of engagement. Some of it is positive, but lately many of the comments have been negative, as Albertans grow increasingly frustrated by what they see as politics snubbing science. Hinshaw is caught in the middle.
People need to understand though, it’s not Dr. Hinshaw sending those Tweets. It’s AHS Communications people. It’s rare for people in her position to be active on social media. The same goes for many politicians. Justin Trudeau doesn’t send his own Tweets. His aides are saddled with the responsibility of writing what they think he would say, in both of Canada's official languages.
There’s one big exception to this rule – Donald Trump. He uses Twitter to try to bypass mainstream media. The Twitter account of his rival Joe Biden however, is handled by aides. If there was any doubt, during last week’s debate, tweets from Biden were appearing on his timeline as he was trading barbs with Trump. I did see him glance at his watch, but I didn’t see him whip out his iPhone and send a couple of Tweets during the debate.
Let’s get back to Dr. Hinshaw. Last week I noticed a real change in the way daily update numbers were being handled in her Twitter feed.
In the past, updates to the daily case counts for COVID19 were featured prominently in her Tweets. After all, that’s what the media has been focused on. Like it or not, daily case counts provide a quick report card on how we’re doing as a province, especially now with the numbers going through the roof.
Here was her Tweet from last Tuesday. You’ll notice she doesn’t bring up the scary number of 323 new cases until she talks about the positive news of recoveries and tests.
I noticed the change in approach right away and Tweeted “You buried the lede. Let me fix it. We had 323 new cases today, the 4th highest daily total ever and as a result, hospitalizations are getting dangerously high.”
Many others who read my response must have agreed. Within a few hours, 26 people retweeted what I wrote and twice as many liked the comment. The people aren’t fooled either.
A couple of days later, Hinshaw’s Twitter account was at it again – ignoring more than 400 daily cases for the first time and instead talking about Halloween first.
It’s now clear that Dr. Hinshaw’s Twitter feed is trying to play down daily case count numbers and focus on other aspects of the virus. As a former member of the news media for many years and somebody who studies the way issues are managed, this is a clear attempt by AHS to try to control the message, as COVID numbers in Alberta go through the roof.
In fairness, the order of the information in Hinshaw's Tweets matches how she has presented the information at her latest news conference, as she reads prepared statements from her communication team before taking questions from reporters. As a result, burying the numbers is a change in approach at her media conferences as well.
I feel sorry for Dr. Hinshaw. She’s not writing those messages, but a lot of the people who read them don’t know that.
Trying to Control the Message
I wonder if there’s something bigger at play here than just some AHS communications people trying to control the message?
In the US, Donald Trump has basically done his best to distance himself from the virus and recently talked about the country “Rounding the corner” even though it saw daily records for the number of new cases last week. Sound familiar Alberta?
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has also distanced himself from the virus. He hasn’t been at a news conference with Dr. Hinshaw for months. It’s clear he still supports children going back into the same classrooms even though around 400 schools have reported cases, according to the Support Our Schools Alberta website. It’s clear he doesn’t want to shut down any portion of the Alberta economy.
That’s why it makes sense for AHS to focus on everything else about the virus, other than the numbers, especially with new daily case counts showing record numbers three days in a row and a record number of active cases five days running. The number of hospitalizations in Alberta is the highest ever and the percentage of people testing positive is the highest since May.
I think you’ll agree, all those numbers are more important than once again telling Albertans it’s okay for their kids to go trick or treating.
It’s almost like saying, “I know we have used daily cases counts to show how we’re doing for months, but now that they’re getting really bad, let’s talk about recoveries, testing and trick or treating instead.”
I can see through it and I’m pretty sure Albertans can too.
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I have said this before but what is way more important to me is the number of covid deaths compared to all cause mortality. More deaths secondary to opiates this year than Covid in Alberta. Suicide rates also way up. Why is this not newsworthy?
Great article, Grant. Having worked in Communications for large public organizations, I know that, while there is a team doing a lot of the work for Dr. Hinshaw, what is prepared will be going through significant approval processes, especially considering how politically charged this situation has become. I would not be surprised if what we are seeing actually contradicts what the recommendations are from the Comms team. We will be seeing that a lot from AHS comms given the current political climate. JS
Thank you for making that comment. So true. It may not be the communications people making these decisions; it's likely the work of their bosses.
At the start of this pandemic, the case count mattered because we needed to know if our health system could handle whatever was coming our way. Before we had testing in place, the case count told us how many people were actually getting sick and would need hospitalization.
Now that we know more about the virus, the number of cases should become background information. Instead, we need to focus on how many of those cases require hospital care and how many people die. This is good health care practice, not a communications failure at all. It is not evidence of Dr. Hinshaw being managed by the government's communications team. It is evidence that the communications team is taking its direction from Dr. Hinshaw. As a public health professional, she understands that even though big scary case count numbers increase readership and viewers, they are no longer the most important information we have and are in fact counterproductive from a public health perspective.
Perhaps your media bias is interfering with your perspective on why Dr. Hinshaw needs to make this important shift in messaging. You are thinking about Covid as a communications issue.
As someone who refers to the case counts to aid in making decisions about whether and where to shop or seek other services, I disagree wholeheartedly that the active case numbers are simply background information. One focus is reactive (too late for me to do anything about personally, but here are the cases that are in hospital) versus proactive (there is a fourfold increase in the neighbourhood in which my optometrist operates their business). I would argue that both sets of information are incredibly valuable and should be given the same attention, as they were given at the start of this pandemic.
You lost me at Garth.
Thanks for taking the time to write Virginia. Everyone has a right to an opinion but I can assure you that I see this as a public health issue that needs to be communicated properly. I found it very interesting how the communication strategy changed when the numbers started increasing dramatically and this approach has been used by communicators before.
-Grant (Not Garth) Ainsley