The public communications around the Covid-19 pandemic have been, by necessity, quickly produced and immediate in their aim. To encourage people to abide by the social distancing rules and to take immediate steps to minimise their exposure, and that of their families, work colleagues and neighbours. They have been expected to work on a very functional level, placing messages at the people of the lockdown in the simplest and boldest terms. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.
What’s becoming interesting, though, as public attention shifts from the immediate lockdown to the lifting of the lockdown, is that we can start to make sense of these messages in broader terms, and understand where the have worked effectively, or been less effective.
As Leicester has gone back into lockdown one of the things that is being discussed is that many people in harder to reach communities have been unaware of the core messages, and that they have not adjusted their behaviour in line with the broad strokes of the communications that have been circulated.
I don’t think we should be blaming people that they have not understood the message when the message has been so poorly communicated. The public messaging has been tone-deaf and one dimensional. It has focussed on instructions and orders. It has been presented in basic terms, devoid of personal experience or any sense of identification with trusted figures.
The whole process of communication has been dominated by a narrow range of signs, and has ignored the symbolic importance of the messages that needed to be shared. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Manzoor Moghal puts the problem succinctly.
“I am convinced that the South Asian view of death is an additional cultural factor, one which has received little attention. Many people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are what I might call fatalists, believing that we will die when are meant to die and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. This leads to a dangerously laissez-faire view of Covid-19 and other health hazards. One person I know has been refusing to observe social distancing and will not wear a mask for precisely this reason. He believes that his fate is written in the stars.”
This hits the nail on the head. It’s all very well providing functional information, of the sort that you need when you are navigating your way around a supermarket or a departments store, but in a pandemic you need different dimensions to the communications that public authorities put in place. I’ve already written about how these communications need to be grounded in civic and community platforms, but what is also illustrated here is the need to communicate symbolically. If the message doesn’t make sense in terms of a wider framework, your duty to your community, to your god, to your place in the cosmos, then it the message won’t resonate.
One size does not fit all, and both intra-cultural differences have to be demonstrated along with extra-cultural differences. The assumption made by professional communications managers is that their strategies need to meet key indicators defined by reach, the professional status of the mediating organisations, and the reliability of the organisations that they are dealing with. Any inconsistencies will disrupt the whole flow of the communication managers expectations, and will throw them off balance.
There are many questions to be considered about the process of communications that has been followed during the pandemic, and much to be considered about what we can learn from it, and do better in the future.
One issue that needs to be considered urgently is the role and status of masks. In the UK the prevalence of mask wearing is very low. When I walk around Leicester I don’t see many people wearing them. Perhaps one in ten. Why is this? What is it that is holding people back from wearing a mask? What is the symbolic meaning of masks? What do they tell us about our fears and our hopes?
I witnessed the effect of this today in Leicester, when a group of late-middle-aged protesters were being questions by police outside Leicester Cathedral. They were carrying placards that said highlighted their belief that 5G telecoms masts are a social menace, and that wearing a mask is the equivalent to wearing a muzzle. Clearly, something is going on, not just on a technical level, but on a symbolic level.
To these people 5G communications is somehow responsible for the pandemic, despite all the published evidence and the reassurances from the public authorities, such as Ofcom, explicitly stating that there is no connection. The wearing of masks is connected, seemingly, with the 5G issue. In these protesters minds they are linked.
The question that we need to understand, is on what basis are these disparate and ill-founded concepts gaining a foothold in the public mind? Is the general communications about the pandemic not broad enough? Are we missing opportunities to build trust? Are we failing to consider the multidimensional nature of communications and treating it simply in behaviourist and transactional terms?
I walked around the city centre on Sunday morning and took some photos of the signage and how it has been placed in the city. I’ll go back over some of my past photos and add them to this gallery, and keep adding more. This might be useful as we look back and appraise and evaluate what worked and what we need to do differently in the future.
[Update]: As reported in The Guardian, the general refusal by the majority of the UK population to wear masks in public during the Covid-19 epidemic has been criticised by the president of the Royal Society, Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, “should become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving or not wearing a seatbelt.” According to The Guardian, Sir Venkatraman “spoke as new research emerges suggesting the UK’s uptake of the practice is way behind that of other countries and that face coverings can protect the wearer as well as people around them.” Sir Venkatraman nki “called for everyone to be required to wear a mask in all indoor public settings, rather than only on public transport, and criticised confused messaging from the government.”