Communicating Covid-19


Communicating Covid-19

Posted on: 9th July 2020
Alex Hesz
Chief Strategy Officer, DDB EMEA

Covid-19 isn’t leaving Europe any time soon. Across the continent, a regular cadence of daily briefings and breaking news is stretched before us for months to come. The new normal, as much as it will be about anything else, will be about communications, about the way the few message to the many. About clarity and confusion. About steps forward and back. About the creation and elimination of fear and frustration, about the careful management of optimism or pessimism at scale. 

So the communications of European governments to their people become more important than ever before. The marketing brief to end all briefs. Luckily, mass marketing is a simple exercise. It’s a matter of making millions of different people, each with their own backgrounds, beliefs, circumstances and contexts, behave or feel the same thing at the same time. It is, by definition, an exercise in common denominators. In finding the means, messages and moments that will unite the broadest, most disparate group, and do so around your specific task, to your specific end.

It’s like the apocryphal Usain Bolt observation of winning the 100m at the Olympics. It’s not complicated. It’s just hard.

Luckily, many people are excellent at it, and best practices have been observed, codified, shared and (largely) agreed and acted upon. The marketing giants of the world, from Unilever to Heineken, know the rules. They know the data. They know how to do this. Because there’s a right way to communicate to populations at scale. It’s established. It’s known.

So, if the principles of mass communications are so well understood and so widely implemented, why have so few nations communicated effectively when faced with Covid?

To use another sportsman’s observation, “everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face”.

Covid-19 was that punch to the face. It was the rogue beep on the listening-station radar that makes the operator fall of their chair, even though they know perfectly well how to sit. It made everyone in charge suddenly forget the basics; how to communicate, how to lead, how to bring people on board and bring them with you, how to set out a roadmap and show people their progress. It made sentient, sensible communications professionals make the kind of unforced errors they will not have made in decades.

So, what are the basics that ought to have been universally observed, and where (and why) did they prove elusive on this occasion?

The “what”: Be clear, and leave no room for interpretation. Misunderstanding has an ‘R’ rate all to itself. With the spread of misunderstanding across social media, only a small minority need to misinterpret a message, and share their interpretation with others, to create doubt and fuel a contagion of confusion. The core message at each stage has to be utterly impossible to misunderstand, and any attempt to share an alternative interpretation needs to feel implausible. For instance, the UK government’s initial messaging to stay at home was remarkably effective, whereas the global inconsistency on, say, masks has been confusing and left huge opportunity for individuals to fill the gap with opinion (or even conspiracy) masquerading as fact.

The “where”: Tell me the plan, show me how far along it I am, and keep me updated. Long-term campaigns need to feel like processes, relentlessly progressing towards an agreed conclusion that I support. Whether it’s an Amazon delivery or a new car being delivered, when I’m being told to bear with a process, I want to know where in that process I am, how far along the journey I am, and what will happen every step of the way. 

The “how”: Create a rhythm, manage my expectations, make it feel familiar. Regular messaging benefits from repeated, distinctive behaviours in the delivery of those messages that create expectation, a “normal” way for the communicator to behave that is reassuring and familiar. Brands create distinctive assets, from visuals to language or casting, and deploy them consistently over time, creating consistency which subtly suggests “delivering on expectations” even in small, daily ways. Ikea has a voice over. British Airways has a piece of music. Coke has a colour. Intel has a sound. These things matter. Changing casting, location, messaging, tone, assets week by week, or day by day, creates a disjointed cadence that suggests panic. Don’t underestimate how powerful it looks to look like things are “normal”, particularly if what you’re doing is nothing but. The UK Treasury’s calm implementation of the furlough scheme remains a good example of getting this right.

The “why”: Make me feel good about it. Advocacy will always beat simple adherence. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualisation and esteem trump even safety. Making people feel good about themselves, their role, their identity has long been at the heart of great marketing, but it has been little deployed in the fight against Covid-19. This is more than just “do your duty”, it’s about creating mechanics by which people can identify themselves as participants, as advocates for a cause, rather than just meek followers of rules.

The “who”: Use experts consistently, coherently and as known architects of policy, not just as supporters for it. They enjoy, right across European polling, an assumption of trust that no politician enjoys. Yet, across the world experts have been repeatedly undermined, politicised and used as shields for policy rather than positioned as the architects of it. The objective needs to be visible, and seen to be empowered, in a world of the uncertain.

The “when”: Red buttons are hard to un-press. Deciding at which point to deploy specific messages is hard, particularly when those messages have an inevitable clarity and effectiveness. The over-reliance on “extraordinary” messaging can make a return to ordinary almost impossible. If any brand over-relies on sales promotion, eventually nobody will shop there unless there’s a sale, and the business will die. Telling people to stay home for the sake of their lives, for instance, will work. Even if I don’t entirely trust the messenger, the starkness of the message is such that I will adhere to the message, and accept that my doubts are secondary to the possibility that the warning is legitimate. However, those doubts persist, so when that same messenger tells me to return to work, my having been told to be afraid in such stark terms counts directly against the credibility of that message. Fear is easy to create and hard to remove.

So, as we navigate the coming stages of Covid, the role of governments across Europe is to remember the basics of how to communicate at scale, and marketers have valued perspectives and best practices on which they can build. This might not be about selling products or services, but mass communications is a science as well as an art, and as we have been so carefully told, now is the time to be guided by the science.

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