Mango’s Executive Director, Claudia Macdonald, was invited to speak at the ‘Communicating for New Zealand’ conference at the end of March. The following is part of her address.
Well, Covid-19. That sure as heck has been a ride. Just over two years in and it has dominated conversations, news agendas and our brains. Only the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been able to attract more attention.
To say it has dramatically changed how we communicate and receive information is an understatement. Certainly what it has done is put a spotlight on how people do these two things more than at any other time in living memory.
In this (and probably every other global event e.g. war) the issue is not with communications so much as having the right information.
One can assume that information on Covid was drip fed to our government as things unfolded. They in turn had to assess what was real, what was important and what didn’t matter for now.
There is no doubt that our government did a good job of communicating what they believed were the important things, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.
Like all good comms people, they set an objective up front – slow the spread and protect people. They decided on their key messages and communicated them at every opportunity. They then, sensibly, employed an advertising agency to develop a visual look and feel that was instantly recognisable as a piece of important information about Covid.
They also initiated the 1pm stand up or daily press briefings. That consistency meant people tuned in to listen or watch, and a high proportion of the population received the same message at the same time every day.
Additionally these were delivered by people they trusted to tell the truth – the Prime Minister, the Director General of Health, and as time went on, always a combination of politicians and public servants, with a smattering of experts from science or health fields.
A paper published by Victoria University academic Rebecca Priestly and scholar Alex Beattie in Science Direct last year assessed this government’s communication during the first year of the pandemic. It identified three themes – open, honest, and straightforward communication; distinctive and motivational language; and expressions of care. This approach led to Aotearoa being regarded as having one of the best responses to the pandemic in the world. It is no coincidence that the media often commented that the Prime Minister had a Comms Degree.
So far, so good. Our Government was doing a great job and, while we didn’t all like it, we watched, listened and largely obeyed. We may have been sheep but we were healthy sheep.
So what has changed since those heady days of 2020 and 2021, when we were the darlings of the communications and Covid response world?
Essentially the cracks have appeared. What was a team of 5 million is now one of 4.95m and 500,000 very loud dissenters. But more than that, what was once a united country now has obvious factions; discontent and divisions in society have grown.
Was any of this avoidable through better communications and was any of it the fault of public relations?
I doubt it. The latter is highly unlikely given PR people are employed to communicate for others – we are but vessels, albeit very well made ones!
A few things have happened since this pandemic started, which has had a massive impact on our willingness to listen and agree with what is being told to us.
First, it’s been around 770 long days since Covid arrived in New Zealand.
We’re all a bit tired. In fact, some of us are exhausted. Every day the demand for information is greater than before. And many of us have simply started turning off the news altogether – or reduced intake to a quick headline scan - in favour of mental wellbeing.
Every day, the amount of information to communicate is greater than before.
Where once the audience for pandemic messages was EVERYONE now it is a whole lot of everyones. Including those who have decided not to listen to or believe the messages given.
So instead of the more simple message and consistency we had before – keep calm and stay home – we have a lot of information to stay on top of and absorb.
The complexity of the messaging has become challenging no matter how simple we’re trying to keep it. The messaging around isolation recently changed 4 times. In a month. Is it any wonder people have stopped listening?
Nor is it any wonder than some of us have chosen to close down the channels. We’re overwhelmed. It’s no surprise that psychologists are advising us to limit social media (and I’d add news media in for good measure) to help reduce anxiety.
And therein lies our problem. We have so much to tell people, some of it could save their lives, and yet, they do not want to listen and can’t take in any more. We are full. Kaput!
Adding to this has been an increasing and rapid proliferation of the media, not just social and digital media. In 2020 we thought Bauer leaving NZ was the end of magazines as we knew it but now, we have supermarket shelves lined with new magazines, radio stations by the truckload and every outlet launching a podcast. It is all just more competition for attention. What was once a few channels has become a tangle of wires.
Competition for attention and advertising dollars is greater than ever before.
On top of that, the pace of the news cycle is out of control. No sooner has a story gone up, than an editor is asking for the next one to build on the last.
The truth is we can’t grasp it all; we need to filter out what is relevant to us. This makes us selective in where we get our information from.
So how, as businesses, organisations, public sector, charities, individuals, communicators; how do we break through? How do we ensure our message gets to the right people at the right time. As someone once said, you cannot sell a man who isn’t listening!
The best we can do is make people care. To make them think that engaging will be worth their while.
I don’t know what the future will bring. But I do know that the flood of information will continue at pace, that the channels will multiply, and because of that we’ll restrict where we get our information from, increasingly to those places that reflect our own thoughts.
What I also know is that people will have the same basic desires – to be comfortable, to connect, to emote. If you want your comms to cut through, you need to appeal to their humanness.
So what communications challenges are we likely to face in the coming years?
In a nutshell:
For all PR people I recommend two things: To be heard you first need to listen.
To do that you need two way communication – but you also need to be asking the right questions.
And when you do communicate, you need to be interesting. Word of mouth is the best medium of all. If people are talking about you, you have succeeded in getting your message through. Just make sure it’s a good one