The Leaders’ Report 2021: Conclusions

As with all crises, Covid-19 proved to be an extraordinary moment of truth. It revealed strengths and weaknesses in societies and public services. And it revealed successes and failures in government communication efforts.

Most people turned to government for direction when the virus took hold. The crisis was, therefore, an opportunity for publicauthorities to reconnect with citizens in a more empathetic and meaningful way.

Despite missteps, the crisis demonstrated that government communication – when based on scientific evidence, backed by audience understanding and delivered by an appropriate messenger – can change behaviours and save lives. Many of the changes in behaviour we witnessed didn’t happen by accident – they were the result of a cycle of integrated communication that needs to evolve further, and a structure of government that needs better collaboration between policy and communication. However, others were the result of deep-seated social and cultural patterns that governments will need to address post recovery.

What type of communication do citizens require from government?

It’s clear that citizens will need support during the transition to a post-pandemic state, particularly as what that post-pandemic state looks like is still unknown. They will also need support in building individual and community resilience to guard against future crises. As a result, citizens need communication that:

  • Makes sense of their situation. They need facts and a sense of security: this requires governments to think longer term in their messaging strategy and avoid running behind the news cycle
  • Provides both emotional and technical. The public do not yet have a sense of what the ‘new normal’ might look like – and they must be able to cope with difficulties that may emerge along the way. Messages must be framed in a way that instils confidence that government knows what it is doing
  • Offers reassurance. Citizens were disappointed by governments that under-delivered, and they still have concerns around personal and vaccine safety. While there have been clear winners and losers during the crisis, there has been no clear moment of victory to provide comfort
  • Reasserts their independence. After more than a year of being treated like children and told what they can and cannot do, citizens want to be treated like adults once again
  • Protects them from new challenges and dangers. On- and offline behaviours have changed. For their own safety, citizens need communication that helps address key vulnerabilities and builds their media literacy, understanding of cyber security, and support for civic responsibility.

 

How do we better deliver what citizens need?

In order to deliver what citizens need, we believe there are nine requirements that government communicators must take to navigate through the difficult waters of the recovery period and beyond. These are:

Build trust

Government stimulus spending will come eventually at a cost to taxpayers. Governments need to prepare now for the bailout backlash.

  • Embrace narrative transformation – tell human stories and improve creative testing
  • When facts change, explain clearly the impact on policy and consequences for citizens
  • Set expectations and be honest in documenting achievements
  • Treat underserved communities fairly; lean harder towards population groups that feel left

Integrate strategy and campaign planning

Integration is always important to government communication – but never more so than in the current and post-Covid-19 environment. Surprisingly it is often not done. Communication delivery and engagement must be fair, not equal – it needs to be targeted at those most in need. Government communication budgets need to invest most heavily in engaging vulnerable communities, and those less likely to proactively seek out information, in a targeted way. By definition that means spending less heavily on mass communication.

  • Develop a fuller overview of policy priorities, requirements, campaigns and budget setting
  • Better integrate communication with policy and behavioural insights functions
  • Centralise across government the planning of cross-cutting and priority campaigns
  • Increase campaign delivery and communication through vetted partners, businesses and influencers

Focus on the citizen, not the policy

Governments need to be more alert and responsive to the needs, aspirations and fears of citizens. That means investing more inunderstanding socio-cultural issues and trends in technology and economic fluctuations.

  • Enhance audience planning by consolidating all government data points
  • Create a single source of citizens’ view using data and insights
  • Deliver stronger analytics, measurement and evaluation
  • Invest in whole-of-government marketing technology and advertising

Build resilience and rapid response capability

Governments will be tempted to see 2020 as a blip, but for citizens it represented something more profound. Moving forward, governments need to help citizens and business communities to be more self-sufficient and self-supporting, and more capable of quickly responding to and recovering from crises.

  • Ensure citizens and businesses can anticipate, respond to and recover from a range of crises
  • Provide audiences with the knowledge and means to minimise risk – to themselves and to their community
  • Develop the ability to activate communications instantaneously, beating the news cycle and misinformation
  • Contextual interventions close to the moment where actions need to be

Publish more content

In an age of disinformation and diminished levels of trust, governments need to deliver messages to the public using more direct and unmediated routes.

  • Move from broadcasting through campaigns to publishing and syndicating information
  • Create direct government-to-citizen channels and bypass traditional media
  • Build better online distribution networks, including though regional and local government
  • Build better in-house content development knowledge and skills in using newer platforms such as TikTok

Develop smarter media strategies

The pandemic didn’t start the great digital migration, but it undeniably accelerated it. The breadth of user platforms is expanding and niche channels are widening their audiences, making citizens harder for governments to reach.

  • Understand post-pandemic media consumption patterns
  • Modernise media buying, enhance scale, and develop data partnerships for greater planning and buying efficiencies
  • Learn from the explosion in e-commerce and conversational commerce
  • Identify the benefits of BVOD, Connected TV, OTT and CTV

Track and listen to sentiment

Atomised publics and fractured audiences require governments to tap into wider sources of public sentiment through natural language processing, text analysis, computational linguistics and biometrics.

  • Identify, extract and quantify social issues and opinion
  • Listen to, monitor and respond to on- and offline conversations
  • Anticipate and tackle mis-, mal-, and disinformation online
  • Create rapid response and rolling capability based on audience

Broaden partnership and engagement activities

Despite physical and social distancing, citizens are still seeking out social communities and the opinions of key influencers. Governments must bridge the gap between communities and governance.

  • Foster and connect with communities, civic groups and not-for-profits
  • Develop more conversational ways of engaging with communities
  • Integrate listening into public policy development
  • Organise and empower like-minded groups

Further develop digital delivery

Citizens are signalling for improvements to be made in design, relevance, and relationships online as well as for greater consideration to protecting citizen data while still providing more efficient solutions online.

  • Embrace digital and technological advances
  • Improve digital government experiences and user journeys for all key audience segments
  • Assess capabilities such as AI and Voice in the delivery of both services and communications
  • Provide reassurance on Personal Identifiable Information (PII) protections.

What can communicators do next?

The experience of Covid-19 brings an opportunity for communicators to step back, recalibrate and accelerate change to build trust and bring government and citizens closer together. Given the recent evidence of government communication quickly changing behaviours and saving lives during the crisis, it offers a chance to ask and answer a series of key questions in concert with their policy colleagues before developing future communication strategies. These are:

  • Control – who is controlling the narrative and channels from within government, and how?
  • Collaboration –how effectively are you working across sectors and across government agencies?
  • Consensus – is there general agreement between government and public that what needs to be done is the right thing?
  • Co-creation – how are you feeding citizen insight and feedback into your plans?
  • Civics – how are you building community engagement and action?
  • Conduct – have you clarified the behavioural response required from your audiences?
  • Co-ordination – how are you delivering through different agencies across central, regional and local government?
  • Crisis planning– how are your actions helping internal and external partners – and citizens – to develop pre-crisis, crisis response and post crisis capabilities?
  • Capability – how are you improving internal capability by upskilling staff to meet changing needs?

Download the full report

The Leaders’ Report: What government communicators can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic is also available as a PDF document.