Ilija Zhupanoski, Digital Communications Advisor to the Prime Minister of North Macedonia
It is common knowledge that many government communication services already have crisis protocols in place to deal with different emergency and disaster scenarios. Regretfully, the Covid-19 pandemic had left many of them staggering. Nobody could have imagined that something like this could befall the world, least in such scope and effect. Hence, at its onset, the pandemic brought about great uncertainty and raised many questions for those tasked to setup proper communication strategies for dealing with the public health crisis.
At a time of global pandemic, as with any other crisis of life-threatening consequences, people turn to their governments, at local and national level, expecting critical services, but also trustworthy and timely information about the crisis and how they can protect themselves.
In the field of disaster/crisis communications, information can save lives, decrease spreading of the pandemic, and all governments are faced with the difficult task of setting up the best communication strategy that would enhance their credibility and increase the people’ confidence in and support to actions taken in response to the crisis, and with the task of developing a system for fast-tracked flow of accurate and verified information to the public.
The main task of any effective communication, especially that of governments at times of global pandemic, is to mobilize citizens to take action against spreading of the virus and thereby protect the public healthcare system and medical staff and avoid hospital overcrowding with patients. In the case of failure, the communication strategy is poorly developed or implemented, resulting in utter erosion of citizens’ trust in the institution and loss of lives, but – in the long run – it could also cause serious economic and social damages.
In order to prevent spreading of the virus, people need to be persuaded to change their habits and comply with protection measures, like mask mandates, prohibition for grouping of people, hands hygiene, and vaccination. Making a change in people’s behaviour through government communication and campaign is a difficult process in its own right and requires time for results to become visible. However, when people’s lives depend on the speed of information, fast change in behaviour is not impossible, but necessitates an advanced communication strategy that instils great trust among citizens. The most important principle in all democratic societies, i.e. convincing people to take the government’s stand and comply with protection measures, lies in telling them the truth, the only truth. Of course, the truth should be inevitably presented and shared through all possible channels, reaching out to each and every citizen, while taking decisive action to prevent and diminish the devastating effect of Covid-19 misinformation that undermine the truth. Full and utter transparency is the only way for governments to gain the citizens’ trust, leaving it to their conscience and sound reason to exercise collective responsibility or to believe conspiracy theories that leave them fearing for their own health and rejecting any advice provided by the authorities.
Speaking before mayors, local leaders, and members of response teams at an online event around Covid-19 local response initiatives hosted by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the former U.S. President Obama underlined the importance of gaining the public’s trust: “Speak the truth. Speak it clearly. Speak it with compassion. Speak it with empathy for what folks are going through. The biggest mistake any of us can make in these situations is to misinform, particularly when we’re requiring people to make sacrifices and take actions that might not be their natural inclination.”
Effective government-to-citizen crisis communications
Effective communications are of crucial importance when delivering messages to citizens, as they need to mobilise people around compliance with public health recommendations and the need to protect the public healthcare system. They encompass up-to-date sharing of accurate and verified information on all aspects of the pandemic, starting with describing the crisis and framing the issue, information on infection prevention, protection measures, education for citizens how to protect themselves and their loved ones, through regular briefings on the number of infected and deceased, and ending with economic aspects of the health crisis and relief measures to address the consequences.
Framing the issue
Framing processes are essential for organising social action (Goffman 1974, Snow, Benford, 1988) and the use of frames is intended to mobilise constituents and populations to take action.
Thus far, experiences from different countries have showed that whenever the leaders attempted to ignore the threat posed by Covid-19 and present the pandemic in much lighter form than it really is, all for the purpose of avoiding to create panic among the population and preventing disruption to the economy, their countries were facing high infection and mortality rates.
Moreover, countries whose leaders lacked consistency in messages for the public, with top officials delivering contradictory statements, were facing general confusion among the population, resulting in widespread panic.
A typical example of war-like framing and rhetoric when addressing the Covid-19 health crisis is found in speeches delivered by French President Emmanuel Macron, who declared the virus as enemy to France. In doing that, he shifted the force of attack as one originating outside the society. Hallmark phrases from war-framed speech used by President Macron include: “general mobilisation”, defining crisis management as “war effort”, qualifying nurses deceased from the virus as “fallen victims”, and calling for “national unity” to defend the country against the virus. Such militarised frame implies a nationalist, paternalist and heroic component, as seen in the President’s expression of gratitude on behalf of the nation to “its heroes in white scrubs”, while underlying the importance of slowing down the epidemic by adopting adequate behaviour and scolding citizens for non-compliance with protection measures in spite of multiple urges and explanations on the part of the health minister and the general director of health.
At the crisis’ onset, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delegated crisis communications to the federal minister of health, but assumed more central and prominent role in communicating messages to the general public as the crisis became more severe. In that, she adopted a calm and caring tone for the nation’s wellbeing, while presenting analytical facts and figures, and did not avoid discussing technical issues, including the importance of correct behaviour amidst lack of medical treatment and vaccine, presented the government’s relief package for affected workers, and adopted a more personal dimension in her podcasts and televised addresses.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also adopted a proactive and pragmatic framing of the crisis until his own hospitalisation, which he used to explain the importance of hand-washing for the entire duration of the happy birthday song, thus ensuring a personal undertone to public messaging similar to the one applied by Chancellor Merkel. His messages regularly pinpointed the significance of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) as part of the broad national effort, including the brief period of time when the Prime Minister hosted daily briefings on latest statistics, followed by elaborate presentation of the government’s response by fellow officials.
On the other hand, U.S. President Donald Trump was persistent in dubbing the Covid-19 as “China Virus” (Rogers, Jakes & Swanson, 2020) and repeatedly downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, often contradicting public health experts and members of his administration in their sombre warnings to the public.
The right way to deliver the right message
To answer the key question about the most effective method for governments to convey information and messages about the pandemic to their citizens, we must first answer a subset of questions, as elaborated below.
What are the features of the message/information?
There is no doubt that the answer to this question lies in the fact that clear, consistent and transparent communication is vital to containing Covid-19 infections.
Information must be understood by all groups of citizens irrespective of their age and education background, and should not include too many technical and scientific elements. In the case of information packed with important elements, a general rule of thumb is to use infographics, video animations and/or other types of visual aids.
Information should be delivered immediately after being institutionally verified and must originate from official source. Timely and continuous information to citizens is a significant tool in the fight against disinformation. Sometimes, it is important for information to be circulated fast in order to protect citizens, prevent the spread of misinformation or decontaminate disinformation that might harm the public discourse. Information should be continuous, messages should be repeated and carried on all channels in order to ensure their outreach to literally all groups of citizens: press releases, communications on official websites, social media, mobile applications, DM applications, fast communication tools, etc.
The origin of information needs to be explained, including the facts it is based on, resulting in presentation of credible information to the public. For example, when communicating the decision on closing hospitality businesses, the public needs to be informed that such decision was taken on proposal from the commission on prevention of infectious diseases, which has determined higher rate of transmission among younger generations and has found that such measure is needed to reduce transmission, followed by presentation of expected results, as well as examples from other countries that have taken similar decisions, WHO’s official position on the measure in question, etc. Another example concerns relief packages that have been designed in consultation with trade unions and chambers of commerce.
Citizens must believe the accuracy of information they are provided. To achieve that, information needs to be presented together with facts and should be elaborated in detail. Moreover, information needs to be consistent, i.e. same and verified information should come from all official points of communication.
Easily acceptable by the broader, non-expert public
Having in mind that we are living at times of pandemic, which means that citizens live in fear, due consideration should be made of undertone used to deliver information and messages. Crisis messages should strike the right balance in convincing the public that all is in order, which helps repress the panic, while injecting a sense of optimism and realism.
Who should carry the message/information?
There are different examples of messengers: press conferences, recorded addresses/podcasts, and social media posts. In some countries, designated messengers are the government’s spokespersons, chiefs of crisis management committees, commissions on prevention of infection diseases, designated spokespersons, Ministers for Health, Prime Ministers, Presidents of State etc. Irrespective of the person selected to carry the message, it is important for messages to be delivered through already established and well-coordinated system. For example, in the case of the Republic of North Macedonia, daily press conferences were oftentimes held by the health minister, who is also medical doctor, a surgeon, but at the times of infection peaks and introduction of additional measures, in addition to the health minister, press conferences featured briefings from the chair of the commission on prevention of infection diseases, as well as the manager of the infectious disease clinic, and even the interior minister. On the other hand, press conferences designated for presentation of economic relief measures included the Prime Minister and the Minister of Economy.
Having in mind that crisis communications are organized around the pandemic, an expert topic that is not broadly known to the general public, the communication strategy included mandatory briefings for the media and the public with medical doctors, epidemiologists and psychologists that could be of assistance to citizens in coping with the crisis. The first step in that regard is to make sure that the topic is bought closer to the media and journalists so they are able to carry it further in simple and plain language to their respective audiences. In the case of briefings intended for presentation of infection prevention measures, these could be held by a panel of doctors who are also members of the commission on protection from infection diseases or different bodies designated to manage the health crisis in the country.
Engaging influencers to carry messages to different target groups
Under the current circumstances when people are uncertain whether they should get vaccinated, be it from distrust in novel vaccines and insufficient evidence on their efficacy or distrust in the government as key messenger in the vaccination campaign, or maybe even the fact that they are misinformed and believe the virus does not exist or believe in another global conspiracy theory advocating against vaccination, involvement of influences, i.e. public figures that enjoy the trust of particular population groups, and their personal examples by getting vaccinated, could have a strong effect on citizens to do the same. People trust leaders in the government, others trust the opposition, yet another group trusts their religious leader, and many trust their favourite sportsman or musician. What is important is for all these public figures to get their vaccine jabs in front of cameras, sending a message on the importance for everybody to do the same in order to finally put an end to the pandemic. Involvement of influencers in the vaccination campaign has yielded great results in highly polarised and segregated societies.
Communication channels to carry the message/information?
This is the oldest and most common method for government representatives to share messages/information with the general public. A novelty brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic concerns organization of press conferences under special protocols, i.e. ensuring physical distance between journalists and wearing masks. Another novelty concerns organization of press conferences where journalists join Q&A sessions online, from their homes or editorial desks, using video conferencing tools such as ZOOM, WebEx and the like.
This is another frequently used information tool for citizens, having in mind that we live in the age of internet and many citizens are accustomed to getting their information from the world wide web. There are plenty and various examples on information dissemination via websites. For instance, Italy has a designated website for dissemination of information on the healthcare system in real time. A designated website (https://koronavirus.gov.mk/) in the Republic of North Macedonia hosts information in the form of statistics, government measures, work protocols and operation under pandemic conditions, advice for citizens on protection from Covid-19, information on available psychological support, toll-free line for covid-related information, breakdown of covid-related costs, etc.
Social media are the main communication tool used by many governments, especially in respect to debunking all and any disinformation related to Covid-19, as these are commonly shared on the same communication channel. In order to accommodate the need for fast debunking of misinformation, a number of social media platforms enabled special products that help governments disseminate their messages. For example, Facebook came up with its own platform for Covid-19 related information which features automated distribution of information on Covid-19 shared by institutions. Moreover, Facebook and YouTube offered vouchers for free broadcast of government-produced videos with messages for their citizens.
DM applications (e.g., Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, Signal and others)
Citizens engaged in voluntary subscription to Covid-19 groups where they receive information about the pandemic. Most often, these are one-directional communication channels. The Government of North Macedonia was approached by Viber and setup a verified community channel on this platform, used to send free of charge messages to Viber users in the country inviting them to subscribe/follow the government’s channel for fast information related to Covid-19.
This is an excellent example of a two-directional communication channel with citizen where they are able to obtain any information needed in respect to the pandemic.
For instance, the Government of North Macedonia set up a telephone line for information on economic relief measure, which offered assistance to citizens in applying for different packages of state relief intended for persons who have lost their jobs and for companies affected by the crisis, as well as separate telephone line for psychological counselling.
Printed materials have proved to be an excellent tool for information dissemination to citizens who do not have internet access, mainly those living in rural areas.
Mobile and web applications
In most cases, applications developed in respect to the Covid-19 pandemic were aimed at registration of infection cases. Inevitably, these applications open many questions about the safety of information made available to governments in case of possible abuse of personal data.
Crowdsourcing by citizens
This tool is used in the case of low trust in the government, i.e. when citizens have no confidence in government campaigns and messages.