21 December 2020
“There is nothing certain, but the uncertain”
There will be wise and learned commentators all around the world who will write the narrative of what will be forever known in history as the COVID year.
However, many of us will also do our own navel gazing to try and understand what happened and why we reacted and responded in the ways we did.
I’m particularly puzzled as to why lockdown v2 felt so much harder than first time round. And I’m not alone. I’ve canvassed friends and colleagues around the globe – Australia, UK, France – who also experienced a second lockdown. Why, when we all knew the drill, did we find it so much more challenging second time round and, in many cases, feel as though our normally reliable resilience mechanisms weren’t working, were just too overloaded.
The obvious reason is the required readjustment to our prior frames of reference. Think how different the COVID crisis is to anything most of us have ever experienced before. Take a natural disaster such as earthquake, flood, fire – you can look outside and see the devastation. And it’s usually acute – short, sharp, hard and fast. The destruction caused by COVID is, for most of us, invisible and ongoing – it’s a chronic condition.
Academics around the world have hypothesised any number of concepts and possible explanations, one of which resonates particularly strongly with me in my role as a professional communicator as well as at a personal level.
This is the notion the new normal in a COVID world is ‘indefinite uncertainty’, a concept proposed by US science journalist, Tara Haelle. It’s a way of feeling, Haelle says, that makes you feel off balance, “like trying to stand in a dinghy on rough seas, not knowing when the storm will pass”.
‘Indefinite uncertainty’ feels a reasonable way to make sense of those weird, disorienting feelings many of us experienced in our personal COVID world.
But of particular interest is how we examine the impact and implications of the ‘uncertainty’ principle in our professional world, in my case as a communicator.
Uncertainty is a well-known and well-founded principle in scientific and economic decision theory, however, there are three areas that are relevant to communications to explore:
Assessing risk has been top of the agenda for communication professionals during this COVID year. Quite rightly, businesses have increasingly been undertaking scenario planning to assess risk levels, operationally and financially, and using that to develop a framework for communications.
However, is there an argument to suggest we should be looking at uncertainty rather than just risk? The work of early 20th century economic theorist, Frank Knight, sheds some light. His work proposes there is a greater level of certainty with risk situations because there is a higher possibility of the ability to attribute probability. You can, for example, identify the probability of flipping a coin or rolling a dice. However, the Knightian Uncertainty Theory says you can’t be certain about uncertainty because it is a situation that simply has unknown possibilities.
Some would argue the media has long been the master of using uncertainty to generate headlines, most typically in the areas of science and economics. They have the ability to inflate uncertainty, for example, making science seem more uncertain that it really is; or, downplay uncertainty and therefore imply a greater level of scientific certainty. Or that old chestnut, give minority views as much ink as majority views, or giving the same amount of attention and importance to the views of non-scientists or non-economists as to those of the boffins. I am sure we can all think of any number of examples from our early COVID experience – the role of masks and PPE, the science of transmission and source, the scientific and economic views on elimination to name a few. It was all uncertainty back then.
As communicators perhaps it is time for us to run the ‘uncertainty’ ruler across our scenario planning – because uncertain times call for new ways of thinking and doing. And perhaps we should de-stress uncertainty and adopt the Japanese proverb … “it is precisely the uncertainty of this world that makes life worth living”.
Jill Dryden is Head of Corporate Communications at Mango Aotearoa