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.

How to reach an audience through #SocialMedia and #influencers

Social media is the latest and greatest thing at the moment in the world of marketing and communications but how do we in an emerging market make the most out of what we’d call influencers, people on the web who are followed and listened to by others. The challenge that we face in a market is the Middle East is a lack of the mainstream online influencers, bloggers. Compared to Europe and the US, there are fewer bloggers in the Middle East, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia. For those interested in pioneer bloggers, have a look at this list compiled by commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi or the Arab Media and Society’s portal on blogs.

Despite the challenges social media is an incredibly powerful way of reaching out to an audience, partly due to directness as well as its credibility. But how do you find the right influencers to reach out to? There’s a couple of very simple ways to do this and tools to use. Klout is probably the best known site for analyzing social media influence across a variety of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Youtube, Instagram, and WordPress.

Klout trawls social media network data and creates profiles on individuals and assigns them a “Klout score.” The higher the Klout score the more influence a person has online. Klout claims to have built more than 100 million profiles from crawling social media sites. While the site is far from perfect, it’s probably the most widely used tool to rate someone’s social media influence. You can search on Klout’s website either by topic or by the influencer’s name. Klout will give you three lists – one for top influencers, one for top +k recipients (basically people who have been rated highly by other Klout users rather than Klout’s own ratings system), and one for best content. Try a search on Dubai using Klout and see whom the website recommends.

The Klout profile for Mashable journalist Brian Hernandez

There are a number of other social ranking sites. The one which is gaining the most interest is kred.ly. At the moment Kred.ly is limited to analyzing people’s Twitter feeds only. However, Kred.ly may become very useful as it’s linked into a website called peoplebrowsr. Peoplebrowsr aims to give marketers and communicators access to influencers. The idea goes that you’d be able to identify people who are specialized in a certain topic and then pay them to promote your company or service. I’d love to hear from anyone who has used kred.ly and peoplebrowsr, especially in the Middle East.

Screenshot from social media analytics site kred.ly for blogger Dain Binder

So let’s give an example of what I’d be looking to do if I was working in tech. First thing would be to identify people with a big enough audience and enough credibility to influence others. One such user may be a prolific twitter user and the founder of saudimac.com Khaled Abdulrahman. Tweeting with the handle @khaled Khaled has over 13,000 followers and regularly updates his web site.

Khaled is a great example of an influence as he uses multiple sites to engage with an audience.

The challenge I have now is how to work with or influence Khaled. Traditional marketing would have meant paying the influencer. This is common for celebrity social media endorsements. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case with bloggers and topic specialists. Many may be willing to support you if they believe in the cause that you are promoting or if the content you give them is relevant or interesting.

The beauty of Klout, kred.ly and other tools is that they’re either free or fairly cheap to use. So when you’re next looking for people to help you communicate to an intended audience you’ve got no excuse for not finding the right influencers on the world wide web.