Covid communications crisis


All the TT dailies have carried alarming images over the last week of throngs of people congregating, not socially distancing and not wearing their masks properly, if at all.

Mass indignation has ensued, the beleaguered Health Minister and the put-upon Prime Minister are figuratively pulling their hair out trying to understand why so many people are not heeding warnings of the magnitudinal threat facing us and staying at home.

A tone of exasperation and urgency has crept into the voices of the presenters at the PM’s coivd19 briefings.

Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards, responsible for medical institutions, has gone from reluctant communicator to the more usual assertive, Trini female in overdrive, compelling us to regard the bald fact that we will run out of covid allocated beds and severely strain our health system unless we act properly to avoid becoming infected with this novel coronavirus that is mutating wildly and killing unprecedented numbers of citizens.

The official team in the firing line of unhelpful opposition slurs and jibes and nasty WhatsApp group exchanges are pleading with the middle classes, who are already engaged, eagerly share notices and edicts from the Ministry of Health and Dr Rowley, and unreservedly lambaste the idlers who are not doing as they are told.

Alas, they should not be
the target group for the official messages of woe and sensible explanation.

Nor are television and print media the best channels for such sharing of vital information.

The PM was genuinely amazed that a couple turned up at a Tobago mall totally unaware of the current, near-total lockdown in the country.

But there should be no surprise there. The messaging should have arrived at every corner of the two islands after a year of the plague.

The pertinent question is why has it not? It reveals that the state communications operations are inadequate for the job in hand, which is a crisis in itself.

Ethos, pathos and logos are the well-established methods of influencing others, and Dr Rowley and his team have used all of them. “Follow the science,” emanating from the mouth of the sure-footed Chief Medical Officer, the hard-working Minister of Health and the Prime Minister (himself a victim of the virus), gives authority to the message – ethos.

The PM has appealed to our emotions through his personal stories, albeit in his own take-no-prisoners style – pathos, and the facts have been presented to us very clearly – logos.

Yet, despite all of that, many people remain unpersuaded. or do they really? Some of them pretend for political, poser and macho or machista reasons to be unpersuaded, but nearly all of them would happily get the vaccine if and when the crunch came.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that all those people wandering around the streets with their jaws covered or their mouths gagged and their nostrils exposed are doing that to be contrary.

It is much more likely that they are uninformed and do not comprehend in any meaningful way what is going on. It appears obvious that our state communications operatives overlooked the fact that over 25 per cent of the population is functionally illiterate. Had they factored that in, they would have realised that a large number of the key potential recipients of the messaging quite probably do not understand what they see. Applying police pressure does not win the persuasion stakes.

An effective communications strategy is not a nicety, if it ever was. Especially in a crisis like the present one, people need to be persuaded to do the needful, not because you tell them to but because they want to and understand the reason why.

Such a strategy contains three essential ingredients: the message, the wrapping and the vehicle or channel for dissemination of the message. Commentators on the TT health missives have not faulted the messaging itself, namely, that we are in a pandemic and our lives are endangered by not doing 1, 2, and 3. The criticism has centred, rather, around the method. We should add the dimension of the vehicle.

I guess you cannot completely fault the civil servants, because very little commercial data exists, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that very many people no longer watch television or buy newspapers. It is now also common knowledge that social media, with all its ills, is the most successful way to get a targeted message, using the media.

Therefore, no amount of repeating the message by Dr Rowley in formal televised media briefings has any effect, as he’s preaching to the converted and missing his key audience. The communications personnel might be relying on the media to spread the message, but media are not the sole method of communication.

Leaving aside those who genuinely believe the conspiracy theories, we should focus on those who have no computer or TV and who are illiterate, ie, those not being reached. A comprehensive strategy would have included drawing up a plan with regional authorities, constituency MPs, religious organisations and local organisations to get the word out.


"Covid communications crisis"

More in this section