To be effective a communication strategy should first be clear for citizens to understand
The novelty attributed to Covid-19 is that no one knew and still doesn’t quite know what the virus really entails. The effects of the virus across the globe have led to a series of measures out of which the most important one is to focus on the sheer power of advocacy and creating awareness about the necessity of practicing social distancing to the best of one’s ability. It is interesting to observe that the coronavirus is the first pandemic in history to have taken the world by storm since social media has pervaded every aspect of an individual’s life across the globe. The virus has made evident that most states are not prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude exacerbated by the overload of information rampant across mediums such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc mostly creating misleading narratives and irresponsible behaviour.
The saturated information environment obviously led to an overload of information for many individuals despite the various WHO guidelines and regulations as well as warnings given by state representatives to not give heed to false information. The information overload causes a tremendous amount of stress for the population and I have witnessed people struggling with regards to controlling the flood of statistics that they have suddenly been exposed to. Despite careful regulation and the media trying its best to cover the pandemic in a responsible way, it can be said that it is the duty of government representatives to play an active role in delivering concise, truthful and valid information to the populace along with necessary instructions.
However, in Pakistan it was one man’s word against that of another as many stakeholders were seen actively using a myriad of mediums to deliver false information as well as inadvertently spreading disinformation (spreading falsehood in order to propagate and promote a select agenda) about Covid-19. Various debates initially were held regarding the imposition of a lockdown where the government initially said it would not impose any lockdown considering the devastating economic impact it might have on a majority of the working class. The exponential increase in the number of documented cases, however, forced the government to take stringent measures and impose a ‘smart lockdown’, which was not communicated effectively by the relevant focal persons and representatives.
Research and empirical evidence indicate that in order to induce a behavioural change in a population or to ‘nudge’ the population to behave or act in a certain way, it is important for the information process to be easy, attractive, social and timely (EAST). The EAST framework combines elements of behavioural economics and psychology to understand how human behaviour is influenced in the first place, and was famously used by the Nudge Unit in the UK Cabinet Office during past national crises. The unit showed how through cost effective information campaigns, behaviour of citizens can be changed without spending exorbitant amounts of money. The government of Pakistan could not, at least initially, incorporate any of the elements stated above in its communication strategy. The communication missed the mark, resulting in most citizens violating loosely proposed SOPs and rules. To be effective a communications should first be clear and straightforward for citizens to understand and follow. For example, starting off a basic mask wearing campaign on Twitter and other social media would have been an extremely cost effective measure. Government ministers and representatives should have taken the first step and worn masks in order to make the public understand the gravity of the situation. However, it was left to private organisations, such as the Salman Sufi Foundation, to start a #WearAMask campaign to encourage citizens to use the mask out of compulsion and not choice.
Second, the message needs to come across as beneficial for the masses with citizens getting an incentive for following the set rules. This could have been done in the form of distribution of free masks and basic sanitation kits by the government instead of launching the Corona Tiger Relief Force, which was unable to bring about real change. The third and fourth aspects revolve around the element of the communication strategy being applicable to most citizens as well as timely intervention of communication, which the government couldn’t accomplish. With confusing messaging built around the virus, especially coming from the top, the citizens were heavily disadvantaged – a lesson we have all learnt the hard way. This also led to a situation where the masses were held responsible for a surge in the number of cases. Blaming a people who hadn’t been sufficiently educated about the perils of the virus can only be seen as disingenuous. An impactful advocacy campaign with a clear message, was needed.
Given the recent decrease in the transmission rates and the high rate of recovery of corona patients, it is hoped that the government will adopt and regulate the already proven and tested models of behavioural sciences to create a clear, concise and accessible communication strategy, beneficial for all citizens that will guarantee good results. Covid-19 has changed the world, perhaps forever, and relevant government bodies and private organisations need to prioritise the wellbeing of the masses by being honest to them and by encouraging them to be cautious and conscientious. Advocacy has always proved its worth in times of crises. Now more than ever we need to focus on what we put out into the world that is trying so hard to heal.
The writer is founder of the Salman Sufi Foundation