A clear lesson from the pandemic is that good communication can save lives.

Government communications is about changing people’s habits – whether that’s asking them to pay their taxes online, stop smoking, or wear masks. “Everything is about behaviour change. It’s not about raising awareness,” says Sean Larkins, Global Director of Capability, WPP Government & Public Sector Practice.

In an online course next month at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Larkins will discuss how government communicators can change behaviour and support policies. He discusses with GovInsider what Covid-19 has taught governments about communicating.

Changing behaviour

The biggest behavioural change during Covid-19 has been, of course, on sanitation and hygiene – asking people to keep distances, wear masks at all times, and wash their hands frequently.

In the early stages of the pandemic, governments had to make people more conscious about when and how frequently they washed their hands, says Larkins, a former Deputy Director of UK Government Communications. The challenge now is to get people to sustain these changes. “Now we need to embed that so it doesn’t just become a short term nudge; it becomes a learned behaviour.”

Citizens are going to demand even more from their governments in the future. Governments have taken on more prominent roles in their lives, telling people what to wear, where to go, where to work from, and in some cases even paying their salaries.

The financial impact of the pandemic will worsen for most people over the next five years, and they will have an increased expectation of government to solve that problem too. “We’re going to have a difficult conversation at some point about why government can’t or shouldn’t or isn’t paying your salary for another six months, or investing more in healthcare.”

Larkins’ upcoming course will give civil servants tools and models to craft these difficult messages, change behaviour with communications, and integrate this into the policy cycle. There are three things effective government communicators must do, he says: build trust, think for the long-term, and understand the audience.

Build trust

People make decisions based on whether they trust someone or not, he says. “If you are not trusted people will not follow you, and in a time of crisis, you need to get people almost instinctively to follow you.”

And who we follow has changed significantly over time. “We’ve long gone past the kind of age of deference where we listen to someone just because they happen to be in a position of authority or a politician,” he says.

We are in an “age of intimacy”, where we trust people who have similar views and experiences as us. These connections are not limited by geography, and instead are fed by our social media bubbles.

Leaders must show empathy and humility when they communicate on social media. They must have “that sense of being prepared to give people very difficult messages, not sugarcoat it, but do it in a calm way”, he says.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister has now become well-known for her messages of empathy delivered together with tough measures. “She’s been very clear that ‘we don’t want to do this, this is really difficult for you; we understand that. But this is for everybody’,” Larkins says.

She took a similar tone after the Christchurch terrorist attack, showing solidarity with the nation’s Muslim residents while passing strict gun control measures. New Zealand’s ability comes from the nation’s experience in crisis communications from frequent natural disasters, he says. “You’ve seen those informal messages really reflect the kind of language and the mindset of where citizens are.”

Think for the long-term

Another lesson learnt has been that behavioural ‘nudges’ are not enough. “What we found is those short, sharp interventions, those nudges, are not sustainable over the long term.”

Governments need to think about systemic changes through the messages they put out. The UK, for instance, is now its third round message for Covid-19: ‘Hands, Face, Space’. This sounds great, is easy to visualise, but the actual advice is the wrong way round, he says.

Keeping a distance is the most important thing for people to do at this time. “We’ve seduced people into thinking that actually washing our hands is the be all and end all or the most important thing.”

The messenger is as important as the message. “Countries that have put healthcare professionals front and centre – South Korea is a really good example – we have found much greater success than in countries that put politicians forward,” says Larkins.

Politicians have shocked people into changing their behaviour with messages of death, rather than leading with medical advice. “Shock and awe is very successful when an immediate danger is perceived the most,” he says. But this doesn’t work in the long-term after the initial threat has worn off.

This is what nations are seeing with Covid-19. As more information has emerged, the vast majority of people have realised that they are not likely to die of Covid-19. Unless they are elderly or have underlying health conditions, their illness is unlikely to be serious.

Understand your audience

Government communications must be grounded in their understanding of the audience and how they will interpret the messages. For example, in Vietnam, wearing a mask was pitched almost as a patriotic duty and combined with strict fines for flouting the law. Whereas, in the US, it is seen by many as an infringement of civil liberties.

Research shows that the concept of community is working well in Covid-19 communications, says Larkins. “People are willing to change their behavior, because it’s for the good of their community, not for their own personal safety, and that’s a really important shift to notice”.

Governments cannot overuse this approach, however. While people see a sense of duty towards their community, they see neighbours as threats. “We see a duty for our wider community, but we see our immediate neighbors as dangerous – maybe they’re bringing the virus to my apartment block – or as competition in terms of access to healthcare”.

Civil servants’ understanding of their audience must also adapt over time, he adds. “We’re going to have to monitor, evaluate, and adjust our communications, sometimes on a day by day basis because the situation is changing very rapidly.”

Nine months into the pandemic, policymakers, scientists and the public know a lot more about the virus now. “We can have a bit more of a nuanced conversation; a bit less of the kind of parent-child relationship.”

Greater media literacy

The pandemic has changed how people engage with the media, and this presents broader lessons for how the public sector should evolve.

For instance, people have been more discerning of the information they receive on social media, and are seeking out more trusted sources of information about the pandemic. At the same time, they are being exposed to more sensationalised content. “We’ve seen an increase in articles and social media content that seek to polarise.”

Nations will need to create better media literacy to help people tell facts from opinions, he advises. “We’ve started to see, particularly amongst younger people, a real challenge in identifying the difference between news and comment.”

Media literacy will make citizens more selective of what they trust. Governments, in the meantime, must continue to build that trust, understand their audience and think for the long term in shaping post-pandemic communications.

Register for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Communications for Public Policy Delivery course starting 4 November 2020.