On January, 30th 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (WHO, 2020). Following that, governments, journalists, companies, individuals communicated frantically. Whilst the President of the United States wrote on twitter “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”(Stevens and Tan, 2020), the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, told Sky News: "I'm reasonably optimistic it [the COVID-19 outbreak] will be reasonably short-lived - remember we're coming into the spring-summer period in Europe. That itself will help to limit the spread of a flu-like virus" (Sillars, 2020).
Daily, journalists worldwide spoke of “PCR-Tests” and “Serology Tests” and a simple look at one’s own social media accounts sufficed to witness the inundation of posts, comments, pictures and videos all linked to the COVID-19 topic. Were these messages true, clear, credible? Were they accurate? To what extent were the sources referenced? What were the objectives of the messages? Whilst communication is important; sending out the wrong messages is dangerous. It is relevant to look back at these past months and question to what extent the messages that were communicated used effective techniques and to what extent had this been the case it could have changed the current lockdown situation we are in.
First, the communication of speakers worldwide will be reviewed in order to highlight the key principles of effective communication. Then the consequences of poor communication will be addressed.
Effective communication requires skill and strategy
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, confusion stemmed from three topics specifically: whether the COVID-19 virus was any different to the seasonal flu, whether or not masks should be worn and whether or not a stay-at-home order should be enforced. Looking back at how poorly the messages regarding these topics were conveyed will enable the key principles of what effective communication is to be highlighted.
As several public speakers worldwide claimed that COVID-19 was “ a form of flu, a little more pronounced than the flu, but it’s still a viral disease like we have every year” (R.L. 2020), the damage stemmed from the elected representatives who are listened to whether we agree with them or not. In a democracy, the implicit contract between citizens and those who rule them means the latter are expected to ensure the safety and security of the former and make appropriate choices for the majority.
Consequently, elected rulers have political legitimacy and when they communicate, we are a committed audience, we listen, and to a greater extent than we like to admit, we trust. The COVID-19 crisis saw a breach of this trust through poor communication and the assertion of inaccurate and unreferenced messages. The first being that the COVID-19 was no worse than the flu. Brazil's President Bolsonaro claimed that the COVID-19 is “just 'a little cold'” (McCoy and Traiano, 2020) and that he “wouldn’t feel anything” if infected (Phillips, 2020).
Similarly early February 2020 , the USA President Trump said: “Now, the virus that we’re talking about having to do — you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April” (Rieder, 2020). What was the scientific evidence that enabled these world leaders to make such assertions? What study were they referencing in order to support their judgement? The issue here is that both leaders superimposed a scientific legitimacy on top of their political one without owning that legitimacy in the first place.
Their communication was not only inaccurate and unreferenced, it was a breach of the trust of the people based on an usurped legitimacy. Prior to drafting any communication message, the legitimacy of the messenger in delivering such a message should be questioned. If the legitimacy is not held by the messenger, then it is crucial to question the accuracy of the message and to reference it.
As a business, whilst it is your role to inform your employees about the measures that you are putting in place to mitigate the impacts of a crisis, it isn’t your role to give medical advice. Hence, when drafting such messages it is recommended to verify the accuracy and the source of every sentence and quote it.
The first rule of communication is to know your audience so that you can tailor your message to it appropriately. When on March 3rd, 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson released the COVID-19 action plan and exclaimed “I’m shaking hands continuously. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know. I continue to shake hands” (Guardian Staff, 2020), he was not only dismissing the importance of the virus, more importantly he was not addressing his audience effectively.
Not only was the tone of his message inappropriate, it lacked clarity and created confusion. Why, if he himself was shaking hands with COVID-19 infected patients worry-free, was he unravelling a national action plan to tackle a “COVID-19 crisis”? His message was further dangerous because it implicitly was encouraging millions to go about their daily lives and not worry about becoming infected. The political and sanitary consequences of such an assertion can be seen today in the UK and Boris Johnson is the first to now recognize awkwardly that he was wrong, as he later said that Britain was facing the “worst public health crisis for a generation” (Sparrow, 2020). Speaking to your audience, clearly and appropriately, is the key to good communication. Using familiar words, overcomplicated words such as “PCR tests”, when most of the population not only does not know what PCR stands for but further does not understand what the differences between a PCR test and a Serology test are, only makes the overall message convoluted.
In the same way that we instinctively address our boss, our spouse and our friends with different styles of language, so should businesses, governments and individuals do the same when addressing a broader audience such as employees, citizens or the general public on social media.
The lack of accuracy, clarity, appropriateness and referencing of the messages communicated early in the crisis led the population worldwide to believe that COVID-19 was no more than a stronger version of the seasonal flu. How this impacted the spread of the virus will be later discussed.
The second message mishandled throughout the COVID-19 crisis was whether or not masks should be worn. In particular, the French government failed to plan their communication strategy regarding the mask shortage thereby damaging its own credibility amidst a historical and unprecedented crisis. Very early on, the French government realised that they were going to be seriously short in supply of masks for the population but more so for the healthcare practitioners.
This shortage was the result of several years of budgetary cuts (Mercier, 2020), that resulted in the state no longer stocking up masks and reducing the healthcare institutions’ means to purchase big quantities of masks, compounded by earlier communication at the end of 2019 encouraging people to pre-emptively purchase masks because of a potential risk from China. Consequently when the COVID-19 epidemic started to hit France severely, with thousands of contaminated on a daily basis, there were not enough masks anywhere.
Instead of openly admitting their mistake, government officials used alternative communication strategies that all back fired several weeks later. On February 23rd 2020, the Minister of Health, Olivier Veran, claimed that “wearing a mask is perfectly useless” (L’Obs, 2020) and a month later the Government Spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye exclaimed : “I don’t know how to use a mask” (L’Obs, 2020) which was not only false but more importantly made her the laughing stock of the government. It wasn’t until April 3rd 2020, several months later that the Director General of Health, Jerome Salomon, recognized for the first time that a widespread wearing of a mask could help minimize the crisis (Monin, 2020).
The lack of clarity of the government’s communication on whether or not people should wear a mask lead to a complete loss of credibility on their part, a widespread confusion as well as social unrest. It caused a precedent for the rest of the communication messages that were further shared by the government and most likely had an impact on the spread of the virus.
When faced with an unexpected crisis or an external event that challenges your overall communications, it is recommended to take the time to develop a crisis communications strategy prior to sending out frantic messages. Most big companies and governments have staff specifically dedicated to crises, within their overall communications department, but for those who don’t, that doesn’t preclude you from taking the time to take a step back, with regards to the crisis or challenge, and develop a communications strategy based on facts to minimize emotional responses to your message. No matter what the topic is, it is important to think of the objectives that the strategy is seeking to achieve but also the timeline of the different messages and the impact that each message will have.
People, employees, citizens have a collective memory and this has been compounded by social media. Whilst a communication message shared in the first quarter of the year may suggest one idea, a contradictory message shared six months later without any explanation for the variation damages the credibility of the messenger and eventually can lead to a breakdown of the overall structure whether that is a business or a government.
As the epidemic progressed, many countries implemented more or less restrictive stay-at-home orders. But this again was a third example of global miscommunication with disastrous consequences. Whilst Italy imposed very restrictive stay-at-home conditions, Brazilian President Bolsonaro argued that COVID-19 lockdowns should be abandoned (Phillips, 2020). Similarly, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, until very late in the spread of the disease in his country, said “I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual”(Guardian Staff, 2020).
“Whilst the proposal suggested by the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser that the government’s long-term goal was for Britain to develop “some kind of herd immunity” against the disease (letting a large percentage of the healthy population catch COVID-19 in order to prevent it from spreading to the most vulnerable), it was never official policy. But the government made it sound as if they were embracing the idea” (Perrigo, 2020) and it wasn’t until March 23rd, 2020 that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce the country would go into lockdown, with all non-essential travel banned and most businesses being forced to close (Perrigo, 2020).
By comparison, Italy had been in lockdown for already fifteen days and France for eight. Worldwide, countries did not adopt the same strategy and whilst we all live in one country, we are also aware of what other countries are doing and therefore we challenge the decision made by those who govern us.
It is therefore crucial when communicating not only to explain the strategy but the rationale of the strategy. And it is important to recognize when we don’t know. As a business, impacted by external events, the way these events will unfold is not necessarily known at the time when the message needs to be drafted. It is important to acknowledge that and to publicly and openly explain the limits of the message whether it be in its time limitations (this message only applies until more information becomes available) or in its grounding (we do not know whether the course of action we will be taking will be successful but we believe based on the evidence that this is the best one).
This gives transparency to the message, reasserts the trust that the audience has in the validity of the message and helps convey the long term strategy.
Communication isn’t just about speaking or writing. It requires skill and strategy. Unfortunately, most public speakers who are gifted with eloquence and charm believe that it is enough. It isn’t. Messages need to be clear in order to not be misconstrued. They need to be tailored to the audience receiving it to ensure appropriateness and maintain credibility. Above all communicating inaccurate, unreferenced and false information can have long term consequences as detailed next.
Poor communication has long term impacts
There isn’t a counter example of a global pandemic having been successfully communicated upon simply because the COVID-19 one is historical. Not only are worldwide pandemics not all that frequent but a pandemic in a globalized and interconnected world like the one we are currently living in is definitely unprecedented. Nevertheless the consequences of the current global poor communication strategy has had three main consequences that will be further discussed. Firstly whether a more efficient communication strategy would have enabled a better management of the crisis will be discussed. Then the creation of a misinformation highway caused by poor communication will be addressed and finally the retrospective impact of poor communication on the long term will be suggested.
It is impossible to know to what extent had the global population realized sooner that the COVID-19 was not just a stronger seasonal flu, this would have made a difference in the spread of the disease. Would governments have reacted sooner and locked down the population earlier? Would a more unified strategy have been developed amongst countries?
To what extent would a more effective communication at all levels, from scientists, the medical staff, the governmental analysts and the governments, conveyed the urgency of the situation and the severity of the disease?
Nevertheless, in the UK “Epidemiologists and former public health officials say “the U.K.’s strategy for combating COVID-19 was muddled—leading to delays in purchasing essential equipment and tests, (…)and a lag in implementing social distancing and other restrictions that likely allowed the virus to spread fast and undetected” (Perrigo, 2020). In the USA “Even as scientists looked at China and sounded alarms, none of the agencies’ directors conveyed the urgency required to spur a no-holds-barred defense. By early March (…)it was too late.” (Shear et al, 2020). “Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe. The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread” (Shear et al, 2020).
Whilst the scarcity of masks would not have been impacted by better communication, the miserable attempts by the French government to mitigate the consequences of the shortage by openly communicating false and muddled messages severely deteriorated the trust that the population had in its elected representatives. The impact of this damaged trust will be long standing and will remain for several decades in the collective memory. This is exemplified by the Chernobyl crisis. Over thirty years later the French still believe that the government lied about the impact of the Chernobyl explosion on the French population and blame the government for minimizing the impacts of the nuclear cloud over the territory (Beunaiche, 2019).
Further had the messages about the necessity for a mask been clearly expressed earlier, alternatives would surely have been developed sooner as was the was the case later on in the crisis when people were home-making them or when businesses converted their original purpose into making masks. In France, later in the crisis, companies transformed their equipment and tools in order to manufacture protective masks (LCI, 2020) such as in Talant, the only French designer and manufacturer of safety equipment for motor racing drivers, which used its sewing workshop for the design of 300 masks a day (Hubert, 2020). To what extent did this lack of trust in their governments impact the behavior of the people in not respecting the lockdown measures early on such that after an initial lockdown policy, countries had to impose fines for people trespassing them.
In France, within the first ten days of the lockdown 225 000 fines were drawn up (Garoscio, 2020) and in Italy within seven days of the imposed lockdown 830 000 Italians went out without rightful cause and were fined (Marchand, 2020). Had the governments messages been more trust worthy, would this have impacted the Italians and French in respecting the stay at home order and to what extent could that in turn have minimized the number of deaths? One can only speculate. What is certain is that all too often it only once a crisis is over that historical documentaries reveal the knowledge that was left unnoticed at the bottom of the social ladder and could have changed the outcome of the story.
Today, because of this lack of transparency and because communication channels are wrought with administrative hurdles, more and more people are resorting to whistleblowing techniques. However, a less positive consequence of this lack of communication is the open door to alternative communication channels such as social media which are unreferenced and mostly inaccurate.
Social media are a wonderful innovation of the 21st century, enabling anyone to communicate with everyone and vice versa. They are a source of communication and information, a way to share and to be together, to network and to boost ones ego but they are also a tool for intimidation, vengeance, criminality and so on. Importantly, whilst most social media are attempting to limit the usage of their platforms for criminal use, the content is not curated. So as long as your message doesn’t encourage anything for which the company providing the platform can be liable, you can write, post, share whatever you wish irrespective of whether it is true or not.
Criticism of the negative impacts of social media predate the COVID-19 pandemic but unfortunately in times of crisis, people are less concerned with what is true and what is false so long as they can find some form of reassurance. Deceived by governments, journalists and even scientists, people turned to social media where everything and anything was posted. Without any judgement people relayed false messages of hope, of information, on how the virus spread and killed. A French study revealed that the start of the lockdown went hand in hand with very strong activity on social networks. It was even the most important peak observed in France over the previous 30 days with more than 300,000 original publications and more than 740,000 retweets on Twitter (de Voogd and Guinaudeau, 2020).
Whether social media is the resort for freedom of speech in a time when physical freedom is limited or whether it is an attempt to find information, communicate or generally feel better, what is undeniable is that social media is an extensive source of information, unfortunately uncurated. One of the consequences of this was the surge of racism. As study from the Network Contagion Research Institute demonstrated that “with the spread of coronavirus came a surge in Sinophobic, or anti-Chinese, sentiments especially online” (Asmelash, 2020). "Outbreaks of hate and disinformation, serve to attack public trust and undermine democratic institutions at a key moment of global vulnerability," said Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the institute and one of the authors of the study (Asmelash, 2020).
He added "We are seeing instances where this Asian conspiracy is seeping into the mainstream, and an outgrowth of that could very well be violence," (Asmelash, 2020). To what extent would people be more critical of what they read on social media if they trusted what their governments, journalists and business leaders said? Public speakers at all levels of society have a duty towards the population to accurately inform and communicate referenced, clear and true information.
As thousands of Americans took to the streets in several states to protest against the COVID-19 “lockdowns”, or stay-at-home rules, issued by their governors (Mudde, 2020), the consequences of unclear and poor communication was widespread. At the scale of the individual, a lot of people died. “John McDaniel, a 60-year-old from Marion, Ohio, wrote a series of Facebook posts in which he described the coronavirus outbreak as a “political ploy” and decried the “madness” of the governor’s decision to close the state’s restaurants and bars. “If you are paranoid about getting sick, just don’t go out,” he wrote, adding that others should not be prevented from “living [their] lives” ” (Crow and Waldmeir, 2020).
He died shortly after from the COVID-19 disease. How many of those deaths could have been avoided had the communication been clearer? Had people understood the seriousness of the disease, would they have behaved like they did? To what extent will the relatives left behind sue those they believe are guilty? But further long term impacts will follow suit. When the crisis will be over, the people will make their governments accountable and people will lose their elected positions and be sued. More importantly to what extent will this breach of trust generated by poor communication skills and lack of strategy impact the population in its behavior and in its electoral choices?
An example of such long term impacts can be seen with the Chernobyl crisis. A CIA declassified report states that “Chernobyl also had an adverse impact on the regime’s credibility. More than a year after the accident, Soviet citizens continue to criticize top officials for initially concealing the Chernobyl accident”(CIA Report, 2012). “The costs to regime credibility were especially serious in the Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic. Dissatisfaction with the regime’s handling of the Chernobyl accident exacerbated longstanding popular frustrations in these regions” (CIA Report, 2012).
To what extent will the post COVID-19 crisis fuel further the yellow vests weekly protests that have been plaguing France for over a year? Will the rebellions and protests of Americans failing to understand the lock-down measures be further fueled by unemployment and social unrest all consequences of the COVID-19 crisis? One common misconception was that the lockdown was put in place to protect the individuals when actually the purpose of the lockdown was to ensure that the number of critically ill that entered the hospitals could be appropriately managed. This misconception started to be more clearly revealed when post-lockdown measures started being discussed. Lockdown slows down the epidemic it doesn’t stop it and it doesn’t protect individuals, it protects a population as a whole.
By spreading the contamination, the congestion of hospitals can be limited and patients can be treated in better conditions, and the number of fatal cases can be limited (Dahyot et al, 2020). But as highlighted in a popular song written by Valentin Vander the communication messages shared with regards to the lockdown and its lift were perceived as a catch 22 : “lockdown is the solution to not become infected, but in order to lift the lockdown, we need to be immunized which you can only achieve if you are infected, which in turn can only be achieved if the lockdown is lifted”
(Vander and Vander, 2020). If the communication strategy for the lift of the lockdown mirrors that of its initial implementation, the impacts of poor messaging techniques will be even more significant.
Effective communication requires skill and strategy at the risk of having damaging consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of the impact of illegitimate, false, unclear, inaccurate and unreferenced messages. Whilst some of the consequences of the failure of public leaders to communicate effectively about the crisis can be seen already, others can only be speculated and more will come. Unexpected crises are a recurrent challenge and tackling them appropriately is not just a matter of doing the right thing.
Sending out the wrong messages is dangerous and public speakers at all levels of society have a duty towards the population to accurately inform and communicate referenced, clear and true information. Messages need to be clear in order to not be misconstrued. They need to be tailored to the audience receiving it to ensure appropriateness and maintain credibility. How a strategy is conveyed matters.
Explaining the rationale behind it, its limitations and the timeline not only ensures its good implementation but more importantly builds engagement with the audience. Clear, simple and true messages create ambassadors for them and foster trust. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unravel, it is to be hoped that the communicators learn from their mistakes and address their audience more effectively.
Dr. Raphaela Kitson-Pantano
About the Author :
A true European, Dr. Raphaela Kitson-Pantano is an anglo-italian born in France. A Genetics PhD Graduate from the University of Edinburgh and holder of a Masters in European Politics and Administration from the College of Europe, Raphaela was for several years the Executive Director of the European Association for the Promotion of Science and Technology. Raphaela then joined the L’Oréal Foundation where she was in charge of Scientific Programmes including the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards. The Global Insurance Company AXA recruited Raphaela in 2014 as the AXA Research Fund Life & Health Risks Research Officer and she later became Head of International Health Relations at AXA Global Life. Before moving to Washington in 2018, Raphaela was Senior Policy Advisor to the AXA France CEO on the topic of Brexit.