Feds need to flex creative muscles in pandemic messaging, say experts
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s resumption of the near-daily briefings that were a feature of the pandemic’s first wave symbolically telegraphs the severity of the situation, say political communication experts, even as they say the government needs to flex its creative muscles to reach people beyond the frequent appeals to hunker down as new infections rise to cut through the fatigue.
At the federal level, the job of communicating to the public about the pandemic has largely fallen to Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, the face of the government’s pandemic advertising campaigns and news conferences. For the prime minister, media appearances outside the Rideau Cottage were his primary mode of doling out information and funding.
Heid Tworek, associate professor of history and public policy at the University of British Columbia, said the routine briefings don’t have to draw the same level of viewership during the height of the pandemic to have an impact.
“They’re a way of telling people that, even if they don’t watch them, things are very serious, because otherwise, you wouldn’t have a daily press conference. It’s an indicator that we’re in a different phase of the pandemic,” she said.
The peak viewership of the pressers of premiers and Mr. Trudeau was at 2.4 million, garnering the same eyeballs as a prime-time show averages, according to CBC.
Prof. Tworek also noted that routine briefings can be a bulwark against misinformation or disinformation, because “in the absence of information,” speculation rises.
Alex Marland, political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., said that the pressers can act as a “focusing event,” a signal that beckons the media to highlight their importance, but they have their limits. If messaging is inconsistent across different jurisdictions—as many have contended has been the case—that can have the effect of undermining those communication efforts, he said.
“The biggest challenge in all of this isn’t that they’re repeating the same messages,” said Prof. Marland. “It’s that the messages are often inconsistent from all the different people who are saying them.”
He observed that the multi-partisan cooperation that characterized the first wave has all but eroded. “What’s missing is the reaching out to other party leaders. … We need to be able to promote a united front,” he said. “What might be useful is to figure out what are the common messages that 100 per cent of premiers and the prime minister agree on, and opposition leaders agree on.”
Prof. Tworek is the lead author of a recent study that examined the pandemic messaging of nine jurisdictions, including the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. The study concluded that the public is best served when there’s a “division of labour” between politicians and public health experts, with elected officials taking on the role of “delivering meaning” to the situation, while scientists focus on communicating the guidelines.
Other jurisdictions have also found success in enlisting civil society leaders or in leaning more on informal forums, where the messaging can be more conversational, as part of their communication effort. She cited New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s use of Facebook Live to virtually sit down with “people from different walks of life,” or Senegal’s involvement of religious leaders.
“We’ve seen less than that kind of thing in Canada,” she said, while pointing to B.C.’s use of celebrities Ryan Reynolds and Seth Rogen to reach youth. “This isn’t just about getting a celebrity to do it, but actually really figuring out well, within the diverse communities in Canada … who are the people who are influential?”
Appealing to people’s emotions
Heather Bastedo, president of Public Square Research, an expert in persuasion and motivation research and former political science professor at McMaster University, said the credibility of the messenger, the simplicity of the message, and its “appeal to an emotion” is typically what’s needed to command people’s attention and to motivate them.
Ms. Bastedo said the federal government’s communications doesn’t appear to be hitting all those notes. “To motivate people, you need an emotive response,” she said. “There are reasons why we take action, and that’s generally based on an emotion.”
Part of the issue, she contended, was the government wasn’t able to maintain the same level of connection with the public during the summer, when cases started to ease and the government found itself embroiled in a scandal.
“It was absent for most of the summer, so relationships weren’t built, where you saw the premiers building relationships,” she said. “We had the WE scandal and proroguing, so we didn’t really have as much talk like the denouement from the first wave.”
B.C.’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was someone who has memorably captured public attention with her simple, enduring catchphrase of “be kind, be calm, and be safe” as a salve against the anxieties triggered by the pandemic. In comparison, the government’s messaging has been less than succinct and somewhat clunky.
She noted that the two ad campaigns featuring Dr. Tam sitting solitary at her desk with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a cloth mask—one that launched in the spring and the other in late October—featured a “long laundry list” of messages directed at the public, including a request to download the feds’ COVID-19 alert app.
“Bonnie Henry’s was clean, clear, and kind of went to the heart—be kind,” she said.
For Prof. Marland, the feds’ television ad campaigns, which have run prime time, featuring Dr. Tam don’t sufficiently leverage the power of the medium.
“It’s bad television to have one person on TV standing up and talking. When you’re using television, you’re communicating with emotion, and you communicate with moving visuals,” he said. “Her voice might be fine. How about sitting at the desk first, but then show us a bunch of pictures or videos? That’s how you maximize the medium.”
Though the virus has claimed nearly 12,000 people in Canada and more than one million lives globally, for many, he said, it remains somewhat “mystical.”
“What’s missing is there needs to be images of people who are showing the consequences of what happens when we get COVID, showing the sadness that people experience from losing a loved one,” he added.
Prof. Marland noted the government is, to an extent, constrained by a process that screens ads for hints of partisanship, because of the use of public funds. But, he said, he doesn’t see a reason why it can’t try to connect with people on that level.
The government spent $30-million in the first iteration of the campaign and is projected to spend about $20-million in the current run, which ends in December. Discussions are underway about what a future campaign might entail.
Anticipation over the rollout of a vaccine is coinciding with the second wave of the pandemic that could be on track, in Canada, to directly affect an average of 10,000 people a day by December, if recent projections about the trajectory of the virus hold.
Nik Nanos, chief data scientist and founder of Nanos Research, said appeals alone won’t be enough to carry people through the second wave that has similar hallmarks to the first.
“If he has nothing to say, it’ll definitely add to the fatigue,” said Mr. Nanos. “What we know from all the press conferences is that what we need to do is to contain the virus through masks, social distancing, and being very prudent. None of that is new to Canadians. What is new, and what they want to know about, is vaccines.”
Government officials involved in the procurement and regulatory process held the first of a series of weekly briefings on the vaccine rollout Nov. 26. They said Canada is on pace to make a decision on Pfizer’s vaccine candidate sometime in December, a timeline similar to the United States’. Canada is not, however, expected to start receiving vaccine doses until early 2021, with the government projecting that less than 10 per cent of the population could be vaccinated by the first quarter of the new year.
The Trudeau government has been under pressure to commit to setting timelines for the vaccine distribution amid reports that the United States, Britain, and Germany are planning for a December launch.
Other experts cautioned against putting too much focus on the rollout and offering concrete targets, with the regulatory process for approving a vaccine underway and months still before Canada expects to get its hands on the first shipment of an effective vaccine.
Prof. Tworek said the government risks eroding public trust if it commits to hard timelines and is unable to deliver.
“You can end up with people adhering less to guidelines if it appears to be close in sight,” she said. “You have to remember how few people will be vaccinated, and so, the vast majority of the population will remain immunologically naive for some months.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect date for the cutline. The photograph was taken Nov. 24.
The Hill Times