Comment: What Govt needs to do to get its coronavirus message across

It was encouraging this week to – at last – see the Government start to use advertising to communicate about coronavirus.

The launch of the Unite Against Covid-19 awareness campaign shouldn’t have taken so long.

Presumably, the government department responsible have been fretting about what exactly to say, and let’s face it, things have been changing, even if Covid-19 symptoms have been well known in medical circles for some time.

The Government should have been leading the conversation from the start. Particularly because word-of-mouth has been given a shot of adrenaline and crackpot ideas can be shared on social media instantly and spread fast.

The good news, the government site is clear and informative. Let’s hope they share it well.

So, is that job done for the Government on the comms front? Hell no.

Any smart adperson will tell you that one channel of communication is not going to cut it when trying to get a big message across. What’s more, this is a message that the whole nation needs to hear. We already know from election-time advertising, and the recent census debacle, that the Government can have a blind spot around what it thinks it has told people, and what real people living real lives actually receive and process.

So, here are my tips for the government communications politburo.

1. Don’t rely on a cheap digital ad 

Yes, they finally knocked out a cheap animated ad with dramatic graphics and a stern voice over. That’s great for some of us. However, this sort of sterile message will not work for all as we process information differently, and it’s a very rational message which again, ad experts will tell you doesn’t always cut through.

I’d be following it up with something filmed using real people, to really strongly visualise how to stay safe together … and while it’s not a funny matter, a level of humour or another emotion has the power to cut through and connect with the audience.

2. Spend lots on media, across many channels 

In this fragmented media landscape, we watch TV a lot of different ways and also, not just TV. The information has to be spread across these channels, and at least initially, with high frequency. Get onto radio, in the newspaper, into digital, paid search and outdoor advertising.

3. Measure impact on the government Covid-19 website 

Hopefully, they are getting a lot of hits to the site, and seeing where people are clicking through to. If the site isn’t getting much traffic or those that do visit aren’t prioritising the right links, then the Government will need to revamp the site or its messaging.

4. Websites can’t be the only hub of information 

Some of our most vulnerable are less likely to check out the website, and for others English isn’t a first language. We need to be putting information into people’s hands with a mass letterbox drop to all households, and thinking about languages too, to ensure we reach our diverse community. And effective use of outdoor media, ethnic radio channels, community groups to share important messages.

5. Get the basics right and reassure the community 

Media and social media comments and stories have continually carried criticism of the low-key information (for some, “low-key” could read “none”) at Auckland Airport for arriving passengers. The border has now been closed, but the lack of information on display was definitely caused for concern for many passing through the airport.

I heard the Prime Minister on the radio acknowledging the comment but saying she had followed the process and it was thorough. However, communications are there for community reassurance also, and this is important to reinforce – the airport should be plastered with information and the outdoor media there urgently re-purposed with strong messages around self-isolation etc. This is basic stuff.

6. Tell them, tell them again, then tell them again 

Finally, you don’t have to be an ad guru to know that people forget stuff, don’t always pay attention and need things reinforcing. This is why the Government’s communication campaign needs to not just act more urgently, but it needs to be showing up everywhere people consume information, with frequency, and repeat and reinforce messages and do it in more than one style.

As Churchill said, “a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. The Government needs to own it, so we are all not just reassured but better informed and better able to help and support one another.

Keep calm and carry on.

– Ben Goodale is CEO of strategic marketing agency Quantum Jump.