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COVID-19 and Crisis Communications

10 min

By Aoife O’Donnell, Lecturer, Public Relations Griffith College and Communications Consultant at Vital Communications.

The words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘challenging’ have been used frequently over the last few months to describe the times we are living in. For communications students, these times present an ideal opportunity to study a real international communications crisis as it unfolds, in real-time, all around us.

In every country throughout the world, communications has played a major role in the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The publication of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) Risk Communications and Community Engagement (RCCE) plan is a testament to this. The plan clearly highlights the important role that effective communications is required to play in the crisis to enable governments and public health officials to engage with the public, with healthcare providers and with other stakeholders in order to inform, educate and reduce stigma and ultimately as the plan states to ‘protect individuals, families and the public’s health during [the] early response to COVID-19’. Countries have invested a huge amount of resources towards communications as a result. For example, according to the Sunday Times on the 28th June 2020, Ireland has spent eight million to date on its communications response to the COVID crisis. This figure appears to mainly account for the advertising spend as opposed to public relations but it demonstrates the vital role that is being attributed to communications.

In terms of the role of public relations, it is interesting to look at some of the key characteristics of crisis communications and analyse how countries have responded to the COVID-19 crisis. To do this, we will look at the ‘5 Cs’ of Crisis Communications, which I have identified as Clarity, Compassion, Consistency, Control and Competency.

Clarity

A crisis is a time for clear communication. People at a time of crisis, particularly during a serious crisis that can cause loss of life, can be fearful and may panic. In Ireland, the initial response to the COIVD-19 crisis was very clear. Communication was frequent with daily media briefings and clear public information campaigns broadcast across media channels explaining the public safety guidelines. As a result, the health and hygiene behaviours were adapted well by the Irish public with a 92% uptake reported on handwashing and 91% on physical distancing (Irish Mirror 25th June 2020). However, the communication on face masks has been less clear and, in some cases, the message has been conflicting with some medical professionals advocating for their regular use and others citing a lack of evidence as to their efficacy. The result is a lack of public engagement in face mask-wearing with the reports from the Department of Health indicating that only 41% of people were wearing face masks in public (Irish Mirror, 25th June 2020). In addition to the lack of clarity around the face coverings message, there may also be another factor at play which is stigma. In its ‘Risk Communication and Community Engagement' (RCCE) guidelines, the WHO emphasises the need to reduce stigma. It states that ‘regular and proactive communication with the public and at-risk populations can help to reduce stigma, build trust and increase social support and access to basic needs for affected people and their families.’ COVID-19 has highlighted the stigma that appears to exist in the Western world around mask-wearing. The public will need a clear and accurate communications strategy to try and change attitudes and behaviours to encourage mask/face covering wearing and reduce this stigma. 

Compassion

A common cause of poor crisis communications is a failure by an organisation’s spokesperson to be compassionate or to show empathy when communicating. Take Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP as an example - in 2010, after one of the world’s worst environmental disasters involving BP in the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward came across as unsympathetic in his media appearances. Famously, he stated in one interview that he was looking forward to the crisis being over so he could have his ‘life back!’ Prince Andrew, similarly, in his now-famous BBC Newsnight media interview, didn’t once express condolences with Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. How leaders respond to a crisis can make or break them. During the COVID crisis, leaders who have shown empathy have surged in popularity. In New Zealand, for example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her empathetic response. She has been described as ‘standing with people’ as opposed to preaching at them and has used communications efficiently throughout the crisis. Amongst other tools, she has used Facebook Live to chat informally with people while appearing in casual clothes from her house, for example, a situation that is common to many in this crisis. In Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reregistered as a medical practitioner to assist the ‘frontline’ workers and was described as a ‘badass’ by Ireland’s adopted pandemic celebrity, Matt Damon, for his efforts. Both Ardern and Varadkar’s popularity has soared as a result of their performances. A recent article in the Irish Times on the 15th June 2020 states that Varadkar was set to leave office with his approval numbers ‘off the charts’, while in May 2020, Ardern was labelled the most popular New Zealand leader in a century with her popularity at 59.5% (Independent UK, 19th May 2020).

Consistency

It is important to know what the key messages are and to stick to them when communicating in a crisis. In the world of the unexpected, people need certainty, and consistency evokes trust. This is why the WHO has issued communications directives for countries, to ensure solidarity and consistency of message throughout the world. In its guidelines, it states that ‘people have the right to be informed about and understand the health risks that they and their loved ones face.’ It emphasises the importance of developing a communications plan in collaboration with ‘authorities and partners… to ensure effectiveness.’ Many countries have reacted in a consistent manner, ensuring that the government and the health officials are communicating the same messages to the public. In the initial stages, most countries would have had daily press briefings to consistently inform and educate the public by communicating the most up-to-date health messages to them. Unfortunately, however, this has not been possible to achieve worldwide and inconsistencies in the messages coming from politicians and health officials have caused serious issues in managing the pandemic at various stages. In the UK, in the initial stages, the government was reported to be following a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, the idea being that if enough people contracted the virus, immunity could be reached within the population. After much discussion in the media on the effects that this route would have on the NHS and the fatality rate in the UK, the messages became more empathetic and clear and consistent with the messages coming from the WHO and from other countries: ‘Stay Safe, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. In Ireland, the message was similar, ‘Stay Safe, Stay at Home, Save Lives’. The WHO have now outlined five priorities for countries, which it says, when acted on ‘coherently and consistently’ have a chance to ‘turn the tide’ on the virus’ impact. These priorities include: empowering communities to adapt the health and hygiene measures, supplying health workers with equipment and skills, protecting high-risk groups, conducting research and political leadership.

Control

Crisis Communications is about shaping perceptions, and this can only be achieved by an organisation if it controls the message. It is vitally important for the organisation at the centre of the crisis not to lose control of the communications. In the WHO’s communications plan for COVID-19, it sets out a strategy for communication in an attempt to ensure consistency of message amongst countries.

One of the core challenges affecting countries as they sought to control the message during this crisis was social media and the spread of misinformation. On Monday 29th June, the WHO cited ‘stigma, misinformation and politicisation of the pandemic’ as issues when attempting to controlling the virus. In Ireland at the beginning of the outbreak, health officials were forced to speak out to refute a rumour that had developed surrounding the use of anti-inflammatory medication and COVID-19. This followed the widespread circulation of a message on WhatsApp that claimed to be linked to a medical source and stated that some young people had been admitted to hospital after taking anti-inflammatory medication. The message was reported to be false by the Infectious Disease Society of Ireland and prompted an appeal by the Taoiseach for people to take their information from trusted sources only. This was one of the many rumours and fake stories that circulated on social media over the course of the initial stages of the pandemic. If anything good is to have come out of the pandemic, it may be that people may be more educated and informed as to the quality of the source of the news that they choose to consume. In its communications plan, the WHO identifies misinformation as a risk to the dissemination of the message and recommends that countries should track rumours and make sure to respond with ‘evidence-based guidance.’ A website has since been established in Ireland entitled ‘Healthfacts.ie’ to help people fact check health information specifically relating to COVID-19. 

Competency

In a time of crisis, the public look to brands, organisations, governments and their leaders for reassurance. They need to know that the people in charge know what they are doing and that they are capable of and trustworthy in managing the crisis. This, unfortunately, was not always the case during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic. For example, in the weeks prior to the lockdown in the UK, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson undermined the advice of the scientists and medical professionals by stating that he had recently met and shook hands with many COVID patients while taking no precautions to reduce transmission. Within weeks, Johnson himself was admitted to hospital after contracting the virus. Although his initial approval ratings appeared not to be affected by this performance, over the course of the pandemic, his ratings have travelled in the wrong direction. On the 14th June 2020, The Guardian reported that less than a third of the UK public approve of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Competent leaders evoke trust. They communicate clearly and consistently. They don’t try to conceal information, speculate or blame. US President Donald Trump’s communications offer an example of the antithesis of competent crisis communications. At the initial stages of the outbreak, Trump described the virus as merely like the flu. Like his international counterparts, Trump then proceeded to hold daily press conferences. However, instead of addressing the legitimate concerns of the public communicated through the present journalists, Trump used those press conferences as opportunities for blame and speculation. He blamed the media for perpetuating ‘fake news’ and the WHO and China for mismanaging the pandemic and spreading the virus respectively. As is common in his rhetoric, he used racist language throughout instilling hatred and racism in those who follow him. In one now-infamous appearance, he used his press conference to speculate if there was any merit in people consuming household disinfectant to treat the virus. Immediately manufacturers of such products were active on social media cautioning the public against ingesting their products. A poll by Reuters/Ipsos quoted in Forbes in June 2020 reveals that 58% of American’s disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The article states that this is Trump’s lowest rating since public opinion was first sought on his handling of the crisis in March 2020. For communications students, it is worth studying Trump’s response to this crisis in detail in the context of crisis communications and the use of propaganda. In Brazil, another example can be seen of the effects that the politicization of the Coronavirus has had on the trajectory of COVID-19 within the population. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has repeatedly flouted the advice from the health experts contradicting recommendations on social distancing and attending mass events. Brazil has now overtaken the UK as the second country to have lost the most lives. As of the 5th June 2020, according to an article in The Guardian, the top three countries in the world in terms of deaths from the Coronavirus, in order, are the US, Brazil and the UK.

The COVID-19 crisis is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for communications students to analyse a live international crisis as it unfolds. The Risk Communications Planning document published by the WHO is a clear and concise strategic crisis communications plan which could be tailored and applied to any crisis. Similarly, ‘The 5 Cs’ outlined here can be used to examine any crisis situation to analyse the response of the organisation in question. Similar characteristics will no doubt present themselves in most crises. The COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, is one which is likely to continue for two to three years more and the global communications response should be studied carefully by anyone with an interest in crisis communications.

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