Why the Australian staggered approach to COVID-19 comms isn’t working

I am not here to talk about health policy. I am however keen to discuss communicating change needed to enact it.

Communicating change takes finesse, a cool head and above all else, a consistent message. In Australia right now, this is not happening.

The politicians and medical officers could be standing front and centre with any message of hope and we’d still sneer at this point.

Why is that?

Here’s part of the reason why communicating change doesn’t work in Australia and is failing to meet the standards needed to educate people on COVID-19

Communicating change is a two-way dance

Who delivers the message and how matters. Especially in crisis situations.

You can see the hours on ScoMo’s face. He’s trying and doing a lot. You can tell that by the memes about the breaking news press conferences.

Never a great communicator, ScoMo is getting better. However, when he comes off script to talk about Jenny and the jigsaws or cannot pronounce barre, our sense of dread increases.

Why? Because he doesn’t understand basic things like jigsaws are available online. He’s not up to date with what real people outside his wealth level or politics do.

He also doesn’t check the things he doesn’t know, like how to pronounce a popular form of exercise. Or whether jigsaws are online.

Someone has failed to tell him that pretending to be a part of the public doesn’t suit him. That he should try a different approach seems lost.

When he faces questions from journalists, ScoMo often repeats what he has said word for word, even pointing to his speech to read. This attitude looks like a frustrated person dealing with a thick-headed worker or a recalcitrant child more than it does a leader. He doesn’t improve the communication by rephrasing it. Nor does he show empathy for the person asking the question.

The unspoken message is that he’s so removed for what it’s like for the everyday person, even the best policies in the world will have a Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” vibe.

Contrast that with Gladys Berejiklian. Gladys feels more poised, more compassionate and more together. But she’s coloured by carrying the flag of the leader in the same party. It’s hard for Gladys to get out from underneath ScoMo’s shadow.

This is part of the reason why people are looking at other countries for how they message and what their policies are. Our policies are not the same, so leads to confusion.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is easy to relate to, free from waffle, and making incredibly clear lines of what is happening. ScoMo and the treasurer can make comments about how their package is longer (3 months versus six months) and more encompassing all they like.

She could be the second coming of Cruella Da Ville (she’s not but for argument’s sake, let’s pretend) but we wouldn’t believe it. Why? Because she is transparent and easy to understand.

I am not sure we can say the same of ScoMo and Co. He has to rise to the top and be human about this. Not faux-relatable about sending his poor wife out into pestilence to buy something you can get clearly online. Really understanding what is happening so we can make sense of things in terms of what we need to do to move forward.

The chosen model for change is tricky

Communicating change requires a strong model people can lean on. In the COVID-19 environment, you have probably seen a few approaches stand out.

For example, Singapore and Taiwan – and our beloved New Zealand, have clear cut lines of communication. It is simply:

From X, Y will occur. <small rationale added>

These are not the piece by piece approach we are seeing in Australia.

In Australia, we are using a model that calls for incremental change. This is meant to give businesses and people time to adjust. The economy and preserving it as much as possible is a big part of this.

However, there is a lot to be desired in the economy-focused softly, softly approach. This is especially true from a communication standpoint.

First of all, it looks like the states are not as happy with this approach. Or maybe that’s what the press is leading us to believe. Either way, what is meant to be allowing for people to adjust is actually creating confusion.

Secondly, communicating change of the incremental kind means extra communication. If you want to stagger a process, each step you approach needs to be communicated. It’s the difference between a slow reveal clue-at-a-time trivia question (Australian model) and someone giving you a recipe to cook (Taiwanese model).

Both countries have similar populations but the contrast is stark.

Taiwan, a Chinese territory no less, has had 306 cases with only 5 deaths at time of writing. Australia has ten times that caseload and three times as many deaths.

Yes, the politics are different. And I don’t agree with how the Taiwanese people are governed as a general rule. But it’s the communication I am looking at. It’s what results from that communication and the action taken that matters. Taiwan was decisive and moved rapidly, seemingly without care for what any business or person thought. Australia however, hopes to appease businesses and people along the way.

There’s a lot to be said for ripping the band-aid off quickly when you are communicating change.

We can always recover from shock. But if you continually drip feed uncertainty, our brains cannot handle it.

We’re being underestimated – and confused

Ever watched a documentary or a news report where the family finally finds out where their missing loved ones remains are? The impact is profound. Not knowing is excruciating. It means you cannot make plans, start to grieve or find a new way forward. It also changes your sense of safety on a profound level. You stop believing that things usually make sense.

We’re currently being drip fed information and not getting the entire story. That means that the adjustment times never come. We live in a heightened state of anxiety, wondering when the next foot will drop.

It’s definitely not what our government would wish for us. I don’t believe them to be that cruel or insensitive. It seems more that they are thinking like businessmen and women who are quietly assessing commercial viability of companies and corporations.

Which would be fine, if this wasn’t actually a disaster where the people matter more.

And I don’t just mean that from the health perspective. The mental state of the people will determine direct impacts to economic viability. If we’re too stressed wondering about whether or not to send a kid to school or work that day, our stress levels rise. Our mental health erodes the more stress you apply.

What’s the point of a great economic recovery if everyone is too stressed to work at the end? Or if they’ve self-harmed, suicided or taken refuge with drugs and alcohol that lead to addiction? How will work in these businesses if we no longer have faith in the systems or have the mental capacity to do so?

People don’t want tiny pieces of information communicating change to them bit by bit. They want clarity. Hence the drip-feed model of communicating the changes we need to undertake to combat COVID-19 feeling like bad policy.

The language is still waffle

Most of our information is coming from politicians and medical professionals. Both are known for highfalutin language and complex terminology. This makes it difficult for the average person to breakdown what is being said.

Look at the terms they’re using to instruct us on what to do.

We had moments where people were laughing about doing burpees at their weddings. Memes abounded about other countries saying, “stay home” and Australia saying we needed to stand on one leg, sing a song and rotate a potato. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but gee we had some fun with it.

A coronavirus communication meme floating about in Australia currently


We had to. Because most of it doesn’t make sense.

Australian politics has a terrible track record with communicating change. The language is flowery and exclusionary. It’s steeps in men-in-suits vibes. This is why Jacqui Lambie or other maverick, plain speaking politicians appeal so much more. We don’t feel like we’re talking to someone trying to win Mastermind or the Scrabble world championships.

Medical writing and communication in Australia similarly have problems.

Medicine is not the hard and fast “this is it, people” realm the general population expects. There has to be wiggle room because outcomes are not certain. There will be a percentage of people who die from anaesthesia, even though most have no complications whatsoever. So, a surgeon talking you through an operation has to use words like can, may and expected outcome to account for that change. They have to protect themselves from being too certain because it influences the choices you make- and can get them sued.

This is why in Australia, we have such a problem with people with no qualification in health giving out health advice. They don’t have to account for the treatment not being one-size-fits all. They can say whatever the hell they like, as long as the lycra fits well, and they sound confident on camera. They can do this because (among other things) our food industry is a political donor with strong ties to government.

Yes folks, your food claims can get made because they are often covered under different regulations to health claims. It’s not a conspiracy, simply a loophole.

So, our medical personnel are held to a higher standard of proof than the self-styled “let’s all eat juniper berries and worship the sun gods to stay healthy” food gurus. The latter doesn’t have some secret tour to the stinky underbelly. They simply have looser guidelines to follow.

In a COVID-19 environment, people that think they know better by not being stopped previously believe they are the leader again here.

Drink your water, bathe in the sun, it’s only the flu, whatever- have another delicious smoothie recipe and add the hashtag #CoronaStrong for entry into my latest giveaway.

You can’t blame health gurus in some respects. We’ve indulged them far too long.

But the risk and the complications are stark when you have politicians and medical personnel still communicating change with their usual guidelines.

As they lean into language they are used to using, so too do the other folks.

Our politicians have trained us to ignore science and medicine in this country for years. Climate change, the dismantling of the CSIRO, allowing exemptions in food marketing, not clamping down on influencer culture after the Belle Gibson debacle, accepting donations from companies that create the potential for health issues, and so much more.

You can’t expect people to understand you mean serious business when you have a questionable track record of having our best interests at heart.

Communicating change requires appropriate channels

We have a conservative government. They enjoy the love of the right-wing media more than they do other sources. This is also a party that has in the past slashed budget to the ABC, made statements about bias within the ABC and even openly questioned the intentions of the broadcaster.

Yet the ABC is now being mobilised to communicate what we need to do to stay safe in the face of COVID-19. As it did as our primary source of news with the NSW bushfires.

I don’t know about anyone else but there’s no trust for Australian media when you flip-flop on who to listen to.

I am not saying the right-wing media is currently being irresponsible. What I am saying is that if you keep telling people they can’t trust the ABC outside of a crisis, you won’t get them trusting the information they release during a crisis.

And that distrust leads people to make poor choices.

Australians treat media and politics like football. You either hate the ABC or you don’t. You either think the Labor are fools or you don’t. You either think the left are loonies or the right are bastards.

We’ve been groomed for a very long time to think in black and white, dichotomy style thinking.

So, if you come to Joe Public who hates the ABC for spending their tax money on leftie loonie content from those hippies Labor and their communist friends the Greens, do you honestly think Joe Public is suddenly going to think, “Gee, the ABC says I should stay home today. Even a stopped clock is right twice in a century”?

Of course not! He’s going to hit Google and find the person that tells him that his unease and disquiet at the most hated media he knows actually saying something he agrees with. He’s going to be able to find that, too. Because there’s always someone who thinks they have the number on the government, health department and that horrid leftie commune, the ABC.

Joe Public will validate their feelings and their choices over the messages you desperately need him to hear.

And frankly, that’s not Joe’s fault. Because he’s been groomed by years of political game playing, uncensured media bias and complete horse poo to be rusted onto that thinking come hell, high water or virus-born apocalypse.

But it’s not just Joe on the right. It’s Johanna DanceFace Moonlight Smith that feels like that. The far left also has their own belief in alternative culture and are the people that generally follow the influencer culture over the government messaging.

Here is a group that has felt so let down by the disparity between food regulation and medical messaging that they have invented their own culture. They trust each other. Messages like food as medicine are amplified and taken to extremes. The distrust for a government that seemingly puts profits before the needs of food production, the environment and the most vulnerable has grown.

We’ve had decades of government that wasn’t compassionate. Where both sides of politics lacked the spine to end detention, bring forth marriage equality, raise welfare payments for the most vulnerable, who sold social housing for real estate development money, got booked for corruption and nepotism, all the things that send a message politicians don’t care.

Whether you are on the right or the left, you know there is a culture a rampant individualism that doesn’t allow for the community consensus now required due to COVID-19.

We already have issues with health messaging trust. We already look at our politicians and their donors with suspicion. We don’t trust them when they ask us to tighten our belts while they vote their own pay rises through.

Again, we’ve been groomed to have little faith in the messaging. We don’t trust our politicians to have our best interests at heart because history has taught us otherwise.

Is it any wonder it’s difficult communicating change and have it obeyed?

Communicating change will get us through

It’s easy to be the outsider who screams “you missed a spot”. I have copped it more times than I can count. I know it’s counterproductive.

And to be honest, I don’t see much point in allowing political bias or theory undermine what our government has to do right now. It’s too critical to the health and wellbeing of Australians to think that way. We add no value if we continually poke at what’s going on. We have no other option. This is the leadership we have, the political system we live under and the parties that have to work together to get us through.

But it has to get communicated better. Because people are scared and the issues with communication are not helping.

Our government needs to mobilise remote workers who do this for a living and dig themselves out of the communication hole.

I AM HERE TO HELP with communicating change just as much as the next freelancer. Here’s hoping they listen!

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