The Government Comms Playbook to Fight the Coronavirus

A lack of trust in what the government is saying leads to panic, fear, and citizens taking action into their own hands

This is the biggest crisis all of us have ever dealt with. The pandemic has impacted every major country, both directly and indirectly. It’s brought whole industries down. And, worst of all, tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. And it’s going to get worse.

The hope is that we can all take action to flatten the curve and reduce the number of infections to a level that our healthcare systems can deal with. And this isn’t just a possibility. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea have shown that the right approach can be found to get us through this in the best shape possible, with fewer infections.

Government communications is key here. I’ve seen some brilliant work, and I’ve seen work which isn’t going to achieve anything other than the opposite of what was intended. Here’s what I hope governments will look at doing right now.

A Single Source of Information

This isn’t just a viral pandemic. We’re seeing fake news spread at an unprecedented rate. Given how many government departments are involved in a crisis response (think health, education, business, finance, legal, customs, transportation, basically everyone), the potential for the message not to be seen is high. Each government department has its own website, its own comms channels, and team.

What a crisis like this requires is a single source of information, especially online. This location needs to take the lead in pushing out any and all information on the virus and its impact, including for individuals and organizations on everything. What others must then do is aggregate information from that website. By doing this, you get people to understand where they should go, not only to source information but to also corroborate what they’ve been told.

One example of a single source is Weqaya.ae, a website set up by the UAE government to educate people on health-related issues. This website is a start (and I haven’t checked out how it looks on mobile, and if the website is responsive in terms of design), but there’s another issue that governments need to tackle, and that’s language.

Multiple Languages

It’s pretty obvious, but I’m yet to see governments in my region push out information in multiple languages. And I’m assuming it’s the same in many other places. Now more than ever, communicators need to understand their audiences, and push out content in as many languages as possible (this is why diversity and inclusion matters when it comes to comms, which many of us seem to have forgotten). Write a piece in multiple languages, translate infographics, and if you can’t dub over a video, use subtitles. In the Gulf, the languages to look at include Tagalog, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bahasa… If the linguistic group is large enough, bring in people who know the language to translate, and then push out the content through that single source website and via…

The Use of Influencers

This crisis has been a missed opportunity when it comes to using third parties to get the message out. And I’m not just referring to people with blue ticks or big followings. An influencer right now could include a foreign embassy, an ambassador, or any person or account that’s trusted by a specific group of people. These individuals have mass appeal, they’re trusted, and they post consistently. My feeling is that governments are behind brands when it comes to using influencers (and I’ll say that many social media influencers haven’t helped themselves by being tone deaf to the situation).

Some countries have done things differently. Look at what Finland is doing. Read this from the Guardian.

Finland has enlisted social influencers in the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that they are just as useful as mainstream media in a crisis when it needs to inform the population fast, clearly and accurately.

“We can reach a large part of the public in Finland through official communications and traditional media, but it’s clear the authorities’ messaging doesn’t always reach all population groups,” the government communications director, Päivi Anttikoski, said.

“The aim of this cooperation is to provide better access to information for those who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. As far as we know, Finland is the only country in the world to have defined social media as ‘critical operators’,” – along with doctors, bus drivers and supermarket workers.

Adapt Social Media

Governments have to innovate when it comes to crisis communications. They’ve got to create new channels based on usage and popularity. Oman set up a new Twitter account sharing all official news on what’s happening in the country. The account was set up this month, but it already has 65k followers, and is tweeting in multiple languages.

What the WHO has done with Whatsapp is smart. This channel is used globally, and it’s a simple and effective way of getting out information effectively via a chatbot. It’s also the place where most misinformation spreads (and we have no way of monitoring what is being shared here due to end-to-end encryption). Have a look at the launch of the service, and please do load it into your Whatsapp.

Transparency and Expertise Matters (Especially for Leaders)

My friend Julio Romo wrote a brilliant read on what Singapore is doing to combat the Coronavirus. Given that the state has come through this better than anyone else, their government communications should be studied widely. One aspect of what they’re doing is promoting clear information as to what is happening on the ground, and tell residents what actions they need to take. Their leaders have been using social media and traditional media effectively, to push out a clear message on what is happening, the actions the government is taking to make things better, and what the public can do to help.

Another must-read article was written by Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane for the Guardian. They spell out what leaders need to do to ensure that people listen, remain calm, and follow advice. If you’re in comms, read the piece. But needless to say, openness matters.

And third, look to who is delivering your message. Doctors and scientists have emerged as the best communicators right now, because they understand the subject better than anyone. Look to Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name in the US thanks to his clear, no-nonsense advice. Their understanding of the issue is reassuring. I’d like to see more scientists being given the opportunity to speak and guide the public (have a look at this WEF article about scientists and communications).

Avoid Conjecture

My last piece of advice is avoid making comments in the heat of the moment, especially on social media. I’ve seen so many government communicators in the Middle East mouth off on Twitter, making statements about the impact of the virus on the economy only for these statements to become nonsense a couple of days later. I’ve seen others talk about how well residents have been treated, only to have the country close its borders a couple of hours later. To paraphrase, trust takes time to build, and disappear in an instant. Do what you can to engage, to educate, and to listen as well (we don’t talk about listening enough in communications).

That’s the short of it for me – let me know what you’d add, and let’s start communicating better. What we do matters now more than ever, to keep people safe and save lives. We have been given an opportunity to make a difference for the better, so let’s take it.

Public Relations and the Coronavirus – How will we be impacted?

Every industry will be affected by the impact of the coronavirus, including PR. There’ll be opportunity for some, and pain for others (image from BBC News)

Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.

The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.

Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People

If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).

What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.

Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts

Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.

The Opportunity and the Challenge

It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.

However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.

We All Need Support

Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.

So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.

I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.

Northwestern University Qatar: A case study of civil protest through social media

I’m in awe right now. Of one professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. And also the students. They’ve shown that it is possible to hold people to account for their actions and words through civil protest, both online and offline, in the Gulf.

Let’s start from the beginning. Journalism professor Justin Martin recounted how the University’s Dean had responded to student concerns that graduation would be held on the first day of Ramadan during fasting hours by saying to 40 faculty, “They can go to hell.”

This revelation, as well as insights from others, spurred the student campus to take action and voice their views collectively. What’s surprised me is how united the response has been to this incident, and how it’s brought together all nationalities to act together, through voicing their views on social media, through protesting on campus, and through setting up social media channels dedicated to the student campus. A sample of the responses is below.

The response from the University hasn’t been any different from what I’d have expected, with a statement put out that is a sorry/not sorry and which places the blame on Professor Martin himself as the whistleblower (without naming him).

“Over the weekend a series of tweets targeting the dean and members of the staff and faculty at Northwestern University in Qatar was posted. The statements were based on comments and blogs that were made some time ago – from the last academic year to one that was posted 10 years ago.

Supporting the well-being of our community – faculty, staff, and students – is our highest priority, and we take actions like this very seriously. We will continue to monitor this situation and offer our support when needed.

As a community, we all have a responsibility to be respectful of each other and our differences. Over the past decade, there have been instances where we failed to reach that standard and for that, we apologize.

There are no claims of perfection at NU-Q; we are all human; however, we are also one community. It grieves us that someone within NU-Q would try to hurt this community that we all have worked so hard to create.”

In a region where so many grievances aren’t aired out of fear of reprisal (such as termination or deportation), it’s brilliant to see young people in a university standing up so bravely to state their views with respect and civility. The Gulf needs more of us to speak up for what is right, and Dr Martin and Northwestern University in Qatar’s students have shown that it is possible for a group to stand up and advocate for both respect and understanding from those in power. All the power to them, and I hope that NUQatar’s administration both takes the time to actually listen and act.

The Importance of Execution: Lessons from the Night of McDonald’s Giveaways

Any idea is only as good as the execution. Which McDonalds found out on Thursday

Now, I love my creativity when it comes to marketing and communications. Especially when it involves bridging the online and offline worlds. McDonalds should have come up with a cracker of an idea.

For one night only, the fast food chain was giving out freebies including “Night In” apparel and accessories, including McDonalds-branded loungewear, socks, slippers, games, and more. All consumer had to do was order their food on the 19th of this month between 7:00PM until 3:00AM, online, via the call center or an app. All the surprise items were to be distributed randomly on a first come, first serve basis while supplies last.

Sounds good so far. They’d also gone out and promoted the campaign through influencer marketing, as well as via their own social channels.

So, what’s the problem I hear you say? Let’s go back to what I first spoke about, namely execution. If you don’t fulfill your promise, then consumers will get annoyed. And they’ll vent on social media. And there was ALOT of venting at McDonalds.

It gets worse for McDonalds. You know a stunt has failed when the UK’s biggest tabloid covers the story with the headline “Burgers and Lies”. And, on a side note, the response given to the Sun left me scratching my head; surely they could have promised to deliver items to all those customers who missed out (the response is below), rather than focusing on those who did get free swag.

“Thousands of customers received a surprise in their McDelivery orders last night, however we know how popular the limited edition merchandise has been and are sorry that some customers were disappointed not to receive any. This was the most amount of merchandise we’ve ever distributed in the UK and Ireland so we are delighted to see so many customers sharing their McDelivery socks and more on social media.”

How to Prep for Executions

Getting campaigns right takes a great deal of planning and experience. But there are a couple of basic pointers to bear in mind.

  1. Ensure that you have enough materials/gifts to go round. Look at previous campaigns, tally up the anticipated numbers of people who will take part, and order extra so you have a buffer. It’s better to have items left over at the end and your customers happy, than leave customers feeling as if they’ve been cheated (and the same applies to people – if you need more people for a campaign, then bring them in and train them up pronto).
  2. Clearly communicate with your consumers and partners. With this campaign, there were multiple partners involved, including call centers and delivery drivers from different companies. It’s clear that some of these drivers didn’t know about the campaign.
  3. Update these people too with new information. If there’s an issue with delivery and execution, let your call center staff and social media people know so they can proactively share information/share the correct information, rather than sharing incorrect information and making a situation worse.
  4. Treat every consumer as a person. Consumers aren’t stupid – they’ll see how social media accounts are basically copying and pasting responses to every single complaint. Don’t do that – respond like a person, not a bot. Consumers will appreciate it.
  5. If something goes wrong, do your best to fix it. There’s many consumers out there who didn’t get any free gift on Thursday night, and they’re still writing to McDonalds. Get them a gift, and do it asap. A brand can fix any issue, as long as they act quickly, sincerely, and proactively engage the consumer. If they don’t, that consumer will be lost.

That’s it from me for today. If you have any of your own tips to share on executions, please do send them across!

Purpose Marketing: Nada Dairy’s Ad for Saudi National Day Backfires

Nada’s attempt to mix politics with branding have backfired

I’ve spoken previously about the issue of purpose marketing in the Middle East (mainly the lack of any local brand engagement on big issues such as gender equality and sustainability). One popped into my timelines this week. Sadly, it’s an example that will be long remembered for what went wrong, rather than right.

Nada Dairy is one of the largest manufacturers of dairy products in the Gulf. The company decided to create a video in the run up to Saudi National Day this week. The video attempts to draw a line between the Kingdom’s new cultural policies, and those which were promoted several years ago (this is putting it crudely). The video depicts traditional views as backwards.

The issue with this political stance is that you’re clearly alienating a significant number of consumers. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy, but consumers are free to choose whichever brands they want. And this video has demonstrably hurt Nada’s reputation. Boycotts of its products have been trending on Twitter all this week, and the news has even led to boycott calls in Kuwait.

Nada’s response was to “apologize” for the video (which has been pulled from its feeds). The company also states that it recognizes and respects all views. The statement (which is the first image in this post) may not be the end of the issue, given the strength of the online responses. What is clear is marketers must think long and hard as to what positions they take on societal issues and causes, if they want to both be a supporter of societal change as well as a company that builds a loyal consumer following. If Nada’s management believed in these principles, then the brand has to stick with them. No one will believe in a brand that flip-flops on a societal stance.

Hong Kong, Social Media and PR’s Values – A Chat with Arun

I’ve been closely following what’s been happening in Hong Kong. What interests me is how all sides are communicating, how they’re using social media, and also where the industry stands on a big issue such as democracy and transparency.

I reached out to Arun Sudhaman, the CEO of the Holmes Report. Arun is both based in Hong Kong and is one of the leading journalists for the public relations industry worldwide. Here’s our talk on what’s happening in Hong Kong, the impact of social media today, how communicators are struggling with their values and what’s being asked of them, and why purpose is such a hard issue to get right.

Enjoy the conversation, follow Arun’s work on the Holmes Report, and share your thoughts!

Digital Manipulation: How To Fight Back And Protect Your Firm

Not all digital manipulation is as easy to spot as this fake image from Benetton. The ability to fake high quality content is widespread, and you’ve got to be prepared.

You may not know it yet, but you’ve probably come across content that’s been faked today. It has never been easier to fake content, both visual and multimedia (have a read of this article from The Guardian to learn all you need about deepfakes, or take a look at https://www.thispersondoesnotexist.com/ to see how realistic fake imagery is today, thanks to Artificial Intelligence). Combine the tech with the desire to fool the public, as seen during the 2016 elections in the United States, or in the 2019 European elections, and we should be worried.

What’s more concerning is the inability of governments (or even their complicity) to counter fake news. Combine this with the willingness of many to offer digital manipulation as a service, not just to governments but also to businesses, and we’re in for trouble. Especially if you work in communications.

So, what can we do to protect our organizations from digital manipulation? Here’s a simple playbook as to what you can do to both prepare and fight back against the fakery.

Give Your Brand a Social Voice

It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Communicators need to ensure their organizations are online, they’re on social platforms, and that they’re not just active, but actively engaging with the public. Build up an audience of followers who know your brand, what your brand stands for, and who believe in your brand. When there’s a crisis, it’s these people who will support your brand and defend it against any claim.

Look to Owned Media

Too many organizations have bypassed owned media for social sites, where we lose control. We’ve got to roll this back, and create a portfolio of owned assets online, be they websites, blogs or podcasts, which we control and where the conversation is easier to curate. In other words, switch our focus away from just the big social media sites and to owned mediums where we have the ability to build a narrative that isn’t drowned out by fake accounts, trolls, bots or others who want to drown out our voice.

Take the Crisis Offline

The third element to fighting the fakes is taking the issue offline. If there’s a potential crisis, we have to develop ways to validate what’s going on. That means responding as quickly as possible to an issue online, and getting someone to physically respond, to check if the issue is true or false. This could be for a product defect, a reputational issue, or any other problem that we may face online. Ensure that your traditional complaint channels are integrated with your social media, so you know what’s going on at every touchpoint, and you know what’s real from what could be digital manipulation.

Monitor and Be Informed

The final step is to monitor as well as we can what is being said about the brand. If something is incorrect, step in and address the facts. Listen to what is being said about the brand, learn to spot trends, and look into issues/content which seems out of place. Understand your communities, both your advocates and your detractors, both online and offline. Digital manipulation is easier to spot if you know your online community’s routines and behavior. In addition, ensure you and your team are keeping pace with technology, and experiment where you can with rolling out new tech (one simple way to do this is to work with academia; they’ll be able to help you understand technological developments, and what tools you can use to protect yourself).

If you have any experience of fighting digital manipulation, please do share it. I’d love to hear, and share, your experiences.