By Sarb Johal 16/03/2020


I wanted to highlight two recent changes in communications messaging from the Ministry of Health in the last few days, because I think they are good examples of what we need to focus on if we want to get the bigger picture of good messaging right in these times of Covid19.

  1. The Ministry of Health has changed its messaging around self-isolation to Stay at Home. I wrote on March 12 about how the UK Government had changed their messaging in this way because focus group testing revealed that Stay at Home had more impact in terms of the behaviour they were seeking to influence. But they haven’t tried to dissociate themselves from the term ‘self-isolation’, trying to pretend that it never happened. That would only lead to more confusion. Instead, they have included the term in brackets, being clear that if this is what you may have heard before, then this is where the term sits now in the ever-increasing lexicon of Covid19 terminology. But they prefer Stay at Home now.
    This is a great example. By owning both terms, but seeking to transition to Stay at Home, they acknowledge previous terminology, but start shifting to something more easily understandable. We are nowhere near where the peak staying at home is going to be. No-one knows where that will be. But this is a good move.

  2. Physical distancing vs social distancing. Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Health is doing a great job. Clear, calm, unruffled. He’s due some leave soon, surely. I’m sure it’s being planned for. He is a major asset. Look after him well. Anyway, he made it very clear this weekend in his media briefing that he thinks when people are saying social distancing, they actually mean physical distancing. I applaud this differentiation, and I hope it echoes through the rest of the Ministry’s communications, and throughout all NZ Government messaging and beyond.

Let me elaborate a little: We know that social contact is the biggest protective factor in a crisis, and we know how corrosive loneliness and anxiety can be. Physical distancing is appropriate and likely to be helpful in managing risks – 2m apart and contact for no longer than 15 minutes. However, what we need is social cohesion, not distance. We need to be ever more imaginative and rigorous in seeking ways to connect with others, for our own, and our collective good. Loneliness is already pervasive, corrosive and intense for many. Let’s not amplify its effects through the unintended consequences of ‘social distancing’. Say what you mean – physical distancing, and better social connection. Because we know that connection is what helps people in a crisis.

The bigger picture here is that people need to see that authorities can make it right when they make mistakes, even if it is in tone, rather than core content. Because tone is important. When people learn new information, then don’t just take in the core content – they take in the tone as well. If they don’t agree with the tone (by looking at other people’s reactions), or they don’t like what the tone brings up for them (in terms of conflicting feelings or beliefs), they are more likely to reject the core message. However, if they see that the source is also willing to reflect and modify their message as the situation changes and / or they receive feedback, even if they don’t like your message, they’ll be far more likely to keep listening. And considering that this will be going on for a while, that’s what we want isn’t it?

Responsive messaging builds trust. It’s sometimes difficult to do, but it’s almost always worth the effort.

Featured image: Haibin Wu, Unsplash.