Amid confusion and panic in the community about social distancing measures and school closures, advertising and health messaging experts have urged the government to launch a mass communication campaign making use of television streaming services, social media and news services, and told politicians to scrap “rambling, two-minute answers”.
Many Australians have struggled to comprehend the range of announcements at the weekend, which included the New South Wales and Victorian governments flagging stricter lockdowns of businesses and potential school closures before Scott Morrison held talks with the national cabinet on Sunday night.
Members of the public who were confused by which services might shut down rushed out to buy alcohol, and continued to congregate in large numbers, despite being told to engage in social distancing. Later on Sunday, despite the messaging from other states, the prime minister insisted schools would remain open.
Meanwhile, some gyms closed their doors while others in the industry remain confused as to whether they should, given the various types of health facilities and services they offer, including childcare. On 13 March Morrison was talking about going to the football. By Monday he was admonishing the public for going to the beach.
A creative director and advertising expert, Dee Madigan, said the federal government should have rolled out a mass advertising campaign on hygiene in February. Advertisements began in March.
“It’s rubbish to say it’s a situation moving quickly and that’s why campaigns have been slow to get out there, because we are a couple of weeks behind other countries and we can roll out campaigns based on what we have learned from there,” Madigan said.
“For example, campaigns about hygiene and hand washing could have been pushed out weeks ago – that advice won’t change. The same for keeping distance from people when sick. So much messaging could have been out there earlier than it was, but instead we had the chief medical officer shaking hands with people on Insiders last weekend, hours before people were then told to keep their distance from each other.”
Once those initial campaigns were out, Madigan said the government could have then taken the time to come up with more engaging and emotive advertising that targeted social media, as well as television streaming services being increasingly used by people as workplaces and non-essential services shut down.
“Instead we have posters featuring rather naff little drawings,” Madigan said. “I’ve seen much better, more creative graphs going around that explain the impact one person can have on disease spread and the government should be using those.
“These posters lack emotional engagement that, for example, a beautifully filmed video that’s emotionally and visually engaging and tugs at the heartstrings might provide.
“Australians are laid back, and we need people to get that emotional message that isolation and distancing isn’t about protecting themselves, but their parents and grandparents who might die.”
Madigan said a video launched by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust featuring doctors and nurses was a good example of what the Australian government should already be doing. “People trust nurses, they don’t trust politicians,” she said.
This is brilliant. Exactly what government comms should be doing & isn’t.
Stay home. Save lives
“I understand the government doesn’t want to panic people, but in the face of so much mixed messaging people have been confused. Now it’s at the point they need to scare the fuck out of people to get the message across.”
Prof Julie Leask, whose research at the University of Sydney focuses on infectious disease and immunisation controversies and communication, said the government should give journalists and the public better access to evidence informing their decision making. “People are clearly crying out for detailed rationales. This is more important than ever as we are at a crucial stage of people starting to shape their views on how this should be managed. Putting the current evidence into that picture will help bring people along.”
An infectious diseases physician and microbiologist, Prof Peter Collignon, said the government had not communicated well why some models suggested closing schools could increase death rates. Children may end up being cared for by vulnerable people in the community, such as grandparents, susceptible to the virus.
“The problem is, most modelling on a new virus is uncertain,” Collignon said. “What we do know for sure is we need to be telling people in the age group 70 and older especially just how serious this is. If you are in that age group you should not be going to pubs, you shouldn’t be working, you shouldn’t be in schools or visiting hospitals. I don’t know that we are targeting the messaging towards that age group well.”
He added that messaging needed to be much clearer about the difference between quarantine and isolation. Travellers returning from overseas have reported confusion about what isolating or quarantining for 14 days means, whether they are allowed to get essentials like groceries, and that the terms “quarantine” and “self-isolation” are often used interchangeably.
Self-isolation is for those who have tested positive for the virus, and means the infected person should stay in a different room to others in the household and should rely on others to make trips to the shops and pharmacist, leaving deliveries at the front door. Quarantine is for people at higher risk, for example because they have travelled, but who have not yet tested positive for the virus. “The terminology is confusing even to people like me,” Collignon said. As of this week, the government consider self-isolation and self-quarantine the same thing in terms of what the public need to do in response – that is stay home and get others to get food and other goods. Previously, those arriving home from overseas but who had not been in close contact with an infected person and who were not unwell were given advice that they were allowed to go out to get groceries.
Dr James White, the director of Reach Health Promotion Innovations, said politicians had “spent years perfecting the art of not answering questions”.
“They’ve almost developed a herd immunity to questioning. That’s worked very well for them, but now they need to quickly relearn the art of answering questions. In their pressers, journalists are asking very good questions, and they’re questions that all Australians are asking. Right now we don’t need rambling, two-minute answers that pivot the question to something less difficult to talk about. We need succinct, clear answers.
“In the public health domain that we work in, authority and trustworthiness are the most important currencies. [I] worry a little that years and years of skilfully dodging questions have taught the public to tune out as soon as politicians open their mouths. That’s a problem.”