A lifetime ago in April of 2020, we wrote about how “In uncertainty, trust, relationships, and community are front of mind.”
It feels all too prescient now where we reflect on how “public health messaging is complicated. Sending the wrong message can have devastating consequences. Go too hard and we cause unnecessary anxiety that can take a major psychological toll but go too soft and the consequence can be unnecessary deaths. To date, the messaging has been less than ideal. Too slow, wrong focus, and without strategy.”
Now in the latter half of 2021, the messaging has still been less than ideal. Too slow and without the right strategy and focus. We continue to focus on individual action – but aren’t unifying a community.
While the term “unprecedented times” has become all the more memefied for its overuse and buzz-wordiness, these were, and are, wholly unprecedented times. We certainly have a stronger understanding pandemics, virology, and communications. While these elements were not new, never have we had a viral pandemic in the midst of an infodemic of misinformation, mistrust, and division in a globally interconnected, and interdependent world.
Communicators, leaders, scientists, organisations, and people at large have had extraordinarily difficult times keeping up with and trying to manage a world that changes on a dime, with an unforgiving virus that moves a lot faster than the rate of approvals and production schedules.
This doesn’t mean we couldn’t do or have done better. And while the public service must be applauded for their efforts (and it should be made clear that the APS are not the politicians – they are good people doing hard work), they are still not free from criticism.
In the last few weeks, droves of opinion leaders, myself included, have been called upon to weigh in on the Government’s campaigns to both increase the uptake of vaccination (Arm Yourself), as well as shift behaviours to increase staying at home across Greater Sydney through more direct fear-inciting advertising (Don’t be complacent).
Neither of which has proved to be effective, for similar reasons: it doesn’t do anything that tackles the motivators to trigger behaviours. There is a range of things to focus on when it comes to shifting behaviours or priming community cultures in times of crisis; but there are three key elements that are part of the fundamentals of trust-building, engagement, and connection.
Give of yourself
The cardinal rule in communications for action is to show sacrifice of some kind. Act before you speak. Show a commitment to engender trust. For many reasons, the vaccine rollout has not been successful. I’ll avoid party politics here, but the reality is we’d all have liked to have been afforded more access and unfortunately have not been. So, any communication in this area is immediately facing an uphill battle.
But imagine if our messages came out and talked to this, giving of itself? Shifting movement towards action, togetherness, and freedom as the outcome. We need to recognise our roles as communicators at each point and understand where expressing, demonstrating, and communicating vulnerability builds trust. Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, calls this the “Vulnerability Loop”.
Weakness can be a strength, while the attempt to show strength can be a weakness.
This seems to be obvious, but so often forgotten. There is so much data, science, and conflicting advice inundating consumers of media. It generates an overload of information, in turn generating confusion and is downright anxiety-inducing in so many ways.
Be human. Connect. Connect to what matters to people. Connect to their passions, their hopes, and their dreams. Something we can aspire to. You don’t need to hide behind logos, badges, and crests.
Behaviourally, as we fumble our way through this experience, and re-emerge, we are looking for hope and catharsis. Fear is not the motivator here. As a country, we have been tremendously successful, so our issues are not fear-, but freedom-focussed.
We need to understand our people, what drives and motivates them, what will move them – what do they need? Empathy and humanity will help us shape the way we communicate, by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. Even, and especially, those we do not agree with.
Mobilise the village
It cannot be understated how important it is to take to the village for grassroots communication. It still takes a village to beat COVID-19. Never more so than today as we roll out greater access to vaccines and battle rising new waves and variants.
Hyper-targeted local leaders, elders and influencers are key here. Not the Byron Baes of the world – but real influential voices, on the ground, and in the communities are the key to being the voice of, for and to the people.
We need our national leaders to set the pace, make the moves and champion national change – but when it comes to how we’re going to work together or even arm ourselves for our mates, it’s those we trust in our community we look to for grassroots leadership.
The lesson here is to forget the status quo. This is not drink driving or ice addiction. This is not about quitting smoking. This is new, and this is community-based. Whatever we knew before, has changed.
What hasn’t changed is that we are still a species of storytellers. Communicators that have shaped and built societies around the campfires. The sharing of knowledge and cultures pass on through these stories, person to person, one by one, by groups, families, tribes, and communities. Now, more than ever is the time for community communication.
We have experienced the past 18 months together, as a community of over 7.6 billion people all at once, and as a country of over 25 million people all at once.
We experienced this together, and the way to tackle it is together. In the village.
If we can help you with strategic messaging, culture, and behaviour change, contact us today.
About the Author
Jason Perelson is the Creative Director of Synergy Group’s award-winning creativeXpeople practice, helping to shape behaviours, culture, strategic communications, campaigns, identity, and brand. You can find out more about that here, as well as more about the breadth of expertise across Synergy Group.
creativeXpeople is an innovative blend of people and organisational development, creative ideation, strategic communications, and behavioural change. Where creativity, communications and psychology combine to realise potential, change behaviours, and bring about a new opportunity in the future of work, and society.