Experts offer tips to improve pandemic messages

More than a year of public appeals for people to wear their masks properly does not seem to register for everyone as seen in this photo of two women in the capital city. - AYANNA KINSALE
More than a year of public appeals for people to wear their masks properly does not seem to register for everyone as seen in this photo of two women in the capital city. - AYANNA KINSALE

Is the government’s communication strategy on the state of emergency and pandemic effective?

Over the past year, there have been some in the country who have obediently followed the public health ordinances, and mask and sanitation guidelines, and there have been those who have not, with some people wear their masks on their chin, indiscriminately liming and refusing to take the vaccine because they are afraid it was unsafe.

Dennise Demming, lead consultant of Demming Communications told Newsday on Wednesday the country has older leaders who have colonial and patriarchal belief systems of commanding and controlling a population to behave rather than using more empathetic and loving methods of communicating to people.

“What is required is an upskilling so you do not take on the communication behaviours of that combination...It is understandable, and when you are a 70-year-old mind you, I am 65 and you have not upgraded your strategies and methods of communication, then you would treat with people how 70-year-olds deal with people – as command and control.”

She said to communicate effectively with people, one must love people, and to love them, they must be vulnerable.

“We are not seeing vulnerability in the news, and you’re not going to see it because there is no diversity in leadership.”

She said the more diverse a leadership team is, the more effective the outcomes will be. At the press conferences, she said, there are four male politicians who are presented as the main faces of the “pandemic behaviour change team.

”They are the Prime Minister, the Ministers of Health and National Security and the Attorney General.

“Do we not have any women who can bring a different approach to it?

"Had we had a more diverse leadership, and I’m not just talking about women, but diversity in all its aspects, we would have had approaches that were more diverse, and the outcomes would have been more different.
"But when you have a monolithic approach to your leadership, this is what you are going to get.”

Usually, the population would be “buffed” at the government’s press conference and condemned for the bad behaviour of some. Demming said the government should be mindful of the audience who is watching the press conference, because they most likely are the people who are behaving, and the buffs are misdirected.

“We continue to speak to our population as if they are inhuman, as if it is a dog you are training, and even a dog behaves when you treat them well. The more you love your dog, the more the dog complies to what you want. But we have moved away from that to this crudeness that is disconcerting. It is a kind of aggression and absolutely unnecessary.”

Instead of holding each other to a higher value, she said the leaders are just trying to buff people into good behaviour. She said the intent of the leaders matters, and if the leaders want to be aggressive and hostile to people then their intent is to buff, but if they choose a more caring approach, people would be more receptive to what the government has to say.

“If you go out there intending to buff and cuss, and the 'don’t get me vex' mentality, then that is what is going to be communicated, as opposed to going out there and intending to reach the population and get them to come along with the behaviour they need. If you go there with that as your intention, as loving, then your communication is going to be framed like that.”

Ian Reid is a creative consultant in advertising who has worked in graphics and animation. He thinks the graphs and charts presented on television and online are “not very good,” and boring.

He said the Ministry of Health needs to get designers who understand how medical data works to make proper animated infographics and then get the time to develop them.

“They need someone to sit down and say, 'Dr (Avery) Hinds, you see this huge long graph with the small fonts? That’s not going to work on TV.'”

He said the graphics at the Ministry of Health press conferences looked rushed, as if the communications team just got the data and were told to put it on a graph.

“There is also no time to do it. Something like this requires time to sit down and work it out properly. Take a couple hours to sit down and understand it.”

He suggested the government create an interactive graph where people can get more information rather than put information on a map and chart and expect the reader to decipher it.

“It might be better if you created a website where people could go and hover over and see what each section means instead of the massive mess of information thrown at you.”

He also said people doing graphics for television need to be aware of how colours look on television.

“We have people who don’t understand how colours work on TV. Something like a yellow line, you would not see it on white. Don’t go about saying,  'You could see the yellow line.' No one could see the yellow line on TV. Simplify and explain and use more pictograms.”

From his experience working with financials and annual reports, he knows graphs need to be done in such a way that people could get the informationat a  glance.

“A graph is not to get the raw data. A graph is to explain the raw data.”

Graphs like these showing covid19 cases by day do not seem to be reaching the target audience, according to communication experts. - Source Ministry of Health

While the country has a number of graphic artists qualified to create such maps and graphs, people could also quickly find designers on crowdsourcing job sites such as Fiver and Upwork.

Researcher Nicole Brown said when presenting data to the public, the maths should be so simple anyone with a standard five education should be able to understand.

“The graphs are barely visible, and if I didn't take advanced courses in math and stats at university, it would be hard to understand.”

She said the people presenting the medical data need to break down what is meant by "rolling average," "positivity rate," "death rate" and other terms people familiar with medical statistics may take for granted.

“Math is an intimidating subject for a lot of people, so as soon as they see graphs and numbers, they get flustered.”

She said the communication strategy for covid19 needs to be adjusted to accommodate all levels of education.

“It works for people in academia and people with a certain level of education.
"But I always pay attention to the FB (Facebook) comments on the live stream, and realise the message is not getting through. For example, at the PM's last conference, people just wanted to skip over the stats and find out what the new restrictions were. They were not fully getting that the stats were what drove the decisions to lock down, and the extent of it.”

Management consultant Maurice Burke posted on his Facebook wall that he does not think sharing legal documents is an efficient way to inform the public, because not everyone would understand legalese.

“Why tell a population to read a legal document, and expect them to capture all of its nuances, then to change behaviours?”

He said the authorities should commission an audiovisual team to produce a few short video features explaining the measures, which people can share, forward and repeat.

He said the police could also use the show Beyond the Tape to broadcast the message.

“Clips from this show often go viral because the audience is loyal to the show, if not to the host.

"These two simple steps will do a world of good, rather than the easy, but maybe lazy, step of telling people, many of whom can barely understand the use of many legal terms, to interpret an entire document.”

Newsday sought a comment from the Ministry of Health’s communications team, but they declined to comment.


"Experts offer tips to improve pandemic messages"

More in this section