Communicating public policy is challenging at the best of times. In times of crisis, the task is even more daunting. This is why we have seen so much improvising, back-tracking, announcements amending previous announcements, and equivocation in public communications since the COVID-19 crisis began.
As the situation evolves at a breakneck pace, the swift actions implemented by governments and the preventive measures imposed on populations have been difficult to properly communicate. Communicators are used to relying on templates. No battle-proven playbook exists for the present moment. The last time there was a major global pandemic of this magnitude was over a hundred years ago – before mass media and the internet. Government leaders have been forced to deal with the COVID-19 crisis in real-time as citizens demand immediate answers, line of sight into the way things will play out and, of course, leadership. Most leaders are trying to walk a fine line between total commitment to protecting public health, and trying to project some optimism on the scenarios for resuming normalcy. That's been a very delicate communications balancing act: it leads to non-committal answers and a lot of boilerplate.
It is too early to draw any firm conclusions on communicating during COVID-19, but a few things are already abundantly clear.
First, crisis planning, including crisis communications planning, has generally been insufficient – or at least lacking sufficient operational detail. Governments are making things up on the fly through the crisis, and everyone knows it. Future government leaders will have to be a lot more committed to fully detailed and stress-tested scenario planning for crises of all kinds.
Second, communicating the next phase of this will be more difficult than the first. Polities have shown deference to governments in the last few weeks because of the severity and novelty of the situation. The recovery phase, with the easing of restrictions and heading into a new normal, will be much more difficult and heavily scrutinized. It will be riskier for political leaders as citizens compare divergences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and question local policy choices.
Lastly, hierarchies of decision-making and chains of command must be air-tight and agreed to by all in advance. Situations like this are impossible to fully map out ahead of time, and clarity around who does what in the process is crucial to act in a rapid and coordinated way.
This briefing note was prepared by Adam Daifallah in response to his webinar delivered on April 17, 2020. You can watch that webinar below.
Senior Managing Director of Teneo
Formerly sat on the editorial board of the National Post in Toronto; Former Washington, D.C. correspondent of The New York Sun.