Analysis: How the government can fix its communications problem
Weeks of mixed messages and leaks about Covid-19 strategy have eroded the public’s trust in our leaders and it is crucial that they regain it
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on Ireland, socially, economically and politically. Containing its spread has been extremely challenging, and we all have a part to play. The responsibility to lead, guide and rally the troops through this difficult period, however, ultimately lies with our leaders in government.
In a pandemic situation, the government must consult public health authorities such as the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to inform policy decisions. Their expertise is essential. But while Nphet is concerned with the health system and public health only, the government must also consider how pandemic responses affect the economy and society at large.
The decisions the government takes, therefore, must strike the correct balance between what is desirable and what is actually achievable by the public. It must simultaneously control the physical spread of the virus by limiting the movement of people and maintain adherence to the rules by keeping the public inspired, engaged and committed to the cause.
The Covid-19 pandemic is, of course, uncharted territory. The modern Irish state has never experienced a medical emergency of such scale or duration. The task is rendered even more difficult by the current political situation: we have a three-headed coalition government, comprised of two traditional rivals and a progressive Green party, and we have a rotating taoiseach. Differences of opinion and ideological clashes will invariably arise.
While the government has got many things right and is working hard, it has struggled on a number of fronts over the course of the pandemic. Following Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s address on Tuesday evening, the government has an especially pressing need to recover support and instil hope. Central to that is communications.
What has gone wrong?
The government’s most obvious challenge over the last year has been a poor communications strategy, which has at times been inconsistent and uncoordinated. We have heard mixed messages from all sides on lockdown duration, the timeline for reopening, why some sectors are safe and some are not, and the reasons for delays in the vaccination rollout.
It has been clear on many occasions that both the government and Nphet have made calls and decisions about lockdown and business closures without data or evidence, instead leaning on anecdotes and best guesses. How full an office car park is at a given time or how many takeaway pints are sold over a weekend are not in themselves justification for lockdown decisions.
Then there are the leaks. It’s true that these can be difficult to avoid when every journalist in the country is rightly asking the difficult questions to which we all want answers. All politicians want to provide answers and to be as honest and fulsome in their responses as possible, but there’s a time and a place.
Leaked chats, private briefings and surprise interviews do not bring the people with you. Being anything less than candid about crucial information that clearly and directly affects people’s lives and livelihoods has the potential to be extremely politically damaging. The public deserve forthrightness and transparency, especially if government action has closed their place of work or confined them to their homes.
Why clarity matters
Where this is an absence of clarity and information, speculation fills the vacuum. This erodes the public’s trust in leaders and their decision-making.
When decisions are taken that are not supported by hard data and strong evidence which has been clearly and vocally communicated or otherwise made accessible, strategies and decisions are liable to be picked apart. This generates noise and distracts from the real task at hand: keeping the public with you and committed to co-operating with the existing measures.
This is exactly what has happened to the government this week. As we continue through an extended third lockdown, the government needs our trust. It needs us to trust that the decisions it is taking are the right ones. It needs us to understand the benefits of lockdown, in hard facts – why it continues to be necessary and is our best defence against Covid-19. It needs us to understand that by wearing masks, social distancing and staying at home, we will bring the cases down considerably.
Importantly, the government also needs us to be hopeful, and that hope can only come when we have something to look forward to and aim for. The absence of any timeline is crucial in this regard, particularly following the UK announcement of its roadmap out of lockdown this week.
What needs to change
Managing a country’s response to a pandemic is obviously not straightforward, and no reasonable person expects the government to get it right all the time. Simple improvements in how and when the government communicates, however, will make a massive difference in a critical period of the vaccine rollout and ramp-up.
Our government and health authorities need to show a united front and, using data and evidence, take decisions quickly. This data must be robust, presented simply and graphically, and must go beyond daily case numbers.
We should have a system whereby we understand what the case numbers at a certain level mean for society and the economy. For example, if daily new cases are at, say, 200, does it mean that a certain sector can or can’t reopen? Or if the numbers tell us that a particular sector or industry is significantly risky in terms of spreading the virus, is a delayed reopening advised?
With such a system in place, the public may be more likely to accept decisions taken. Key to this is the government’s ability to put politics aside for the remainder of the pandemic. The three parties must communicate one consistent, unambiguous message in the public interest.
Second to consistency is the regularity of communications. We need to hear from our leaders frequently, particularly Micheál Martin. Brief messages on social media or television and radio with updates on the vaccination rollout and progress towards societal and economic recovery would give reassurance and clarity. The public want to know that events are in motion and that everything humanly possible is being done to minimise the time they spend in lockdown.
Even when there are no major updates, prioritising the public and taking the time to recognise their efforts shows compassion and empathy. Minister Simon Harris, whose brief has no direct bearing on public health, is doing this very well on Instagram.
Formalising this regularised update process for all senior cabinet ministers would increase the flow of information to the public and the media, thereby reducing the market for leaks.
Ireland simply cannot manage a fourth lockdown, financially or psychologically. Now is the chance for the government to make amends: we need firm leadership and a sense of confidence and hope. Only those in government have the power to repair the growing disconnect and lead the public down their new path.
Sarah Regan is a client director at communications consultancy 360