The Leaders’ Report 2021: Executive Summary

Covid-19 hit at a time when the relationship between citizen and state was already under extreme pressure. Between 2017 and 2019, our ongoing programme of research into government communication, The Leaders’ Report, identified significant challenges in both the structure and substance of government communication, and the circumstances under which government communicators were working. These included:

  • Declining levels of trust in government
  • Difficulties in connecting with increasingly-fragmented audiences
  • The inability of government communicators to influence effectively within and across their organisations
  • The impact of rapid technological change on civic wellbeing
  • An increase in individualisation at the expense of community cohesion
  • Changing drivers of closer citizen-state

A summary of findings from earlier editions of The Leaders’ Report is available here.

In early 2020, before the crisis hit, we identified five further challenges. Across the Government & Public Sector Practice’s hubs, we were witnessing:

  • Enhanced polarisation of opinions.
    With a shrinking of the centre ground, different groups with different opinions were accessing different sources of news. Polarisation was making people care more about issues and more likely to act (even ifthat action was limited to online activity), but also less likelyto listen to opposing views
  • Atypical interpretation of facts and figures.
    Disinformation was happening at scale. Statistics seemed to be losing their power. In many parts of the world, emotions appeared to be beating evidence as a source of truth
  • Ongoing shift to digital.
    Social media had created an echo-chamber that reinforced for citizens their existing beliefs and judgements: differing opinions had all but disappeared from news and social media feeds. The increasing curation and personalisation of content appeared to have signalled the end of mass ‘water-cooler’ conversations as widely-shared social experiences began to recede
  • Changing concepts of civic responsibility.
    The notion of ‘community’ as a geographic entity was giving way to amore emotionally-driven concept of communities of interest. People now have more empathy with those they share a perceived bond with, and less with those they simply share a space with
  • Transformations in media consumption.
    A collapse in local media, independent journalism and media literacy was happening at the same time as rises in user opinion, user-generated content and communication inequality were affecting increasing numbers of communities.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, research by and the experience of both the Practice and WPP communications agencies around the world suggests that the pandemic has not only accelerated many of these issues, but it has created a raft of new pressures which pose additional challenges for government communication. These include:

Societies fracturing

The unity of purpose that tackling the virus created has failed to reverse the polarisation of societies: only for a short time did it stall the social atomisation that the social media age has introduced. In many parts of the world, the pandemic led to a revived sense of national identity that reflected off of the shared effort of conquering Covid-19. This has had both positive and negative implications – boosting morale among some audiences but exacerbating feelings of exclusion in others.

Behaviours changing

In a time of crisis, citizens turned instinctively back to government. As the pandemic developed, people were generous with their trust in politicians and public officials, and they demonstrated high-levels of compliance in the behavioural restrictions placed upon everyday life. However, belief in political leaders and their ability to deliver remains volatile and has impacted on a range of other behaviours that governments need to understand.

Trends fluctuating

Despite a strong sense of liberty and individualism, citizens prioritised the health of their families and their communities above everything else – even their finances. As consumers, they are now more mindful of how and where their money is spent, more likely to spend locally on essentials, and more likely to adopt a self-sufficient mindset. The expansion of e-commerce has disrupted profoundly a range of industries including entertainment, healthcare, retail, sport, transportation and travel.

Media shifting

The accelerated shift to digital has seen people rely on the internet and streaming services for new ways to keep connected, informed and entertained during the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. Government communicators were forced to adapt quickly to these swings in media consumption during the pandemic.

Social media, messaging and video services saw significant growth in subscriptions and usage. The more time people spend online, the higher the risks of further societal polarisation. And the more fractured the audience, the more difficult it is for governments to engage them.

Dependencies emerging

An evolving reliance upon government has changed how citizens and the state interact. The pandemic forced a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking – often unwillingly – government support. It required public service providers to treat communication as a more strategic management function. It broadened the need for effective, behaviourally- focused, engagement.  And it necessitated a more empathetic and personal tone of delivery.

From changed behaviours to changed relationships with government, there’s no appetite – yet – for people to go back to‘normal’. While there is a yearning to get life going again, there is also recognition that many of the communities most adversely affected by the pandemic were not victims of a random act, but affected disproportionately by existing social and economic disparities. They will need continued support. As a result, there is little sign that citizens are willing to revert back to the more frustrating and inequitable parts of their pre-Covid-19 existence.

Government invocations to ‘build back better’ are being positively received by citizens, but the public will soon demand evidence – and personal experience – that governments are delivering on this promise.

To overcome ongoing cynicism regarding governments’ ability to deliver will require two things:

  • First, an increase in trust between citizen and state. The public lent their trust to leaders who acted decisively. Trust rose when citizens perceived their priorities to be the same as their government’s: to contain the pandemic, inform society, provide economic support, help people cope, and get life going again. However, it fell precipitously when the public felt let down, deceived, or lied to. Developing more resilient post-pandemic communities will require a higher level of belief that governments can and will deliver on their promises
  • Second, a renewed focus on communication as an agent of change and an effective lever of policy delivery in non-crisis circumstances. It’s never been more important for governments to have a clear, consistent and relevant narrative yet, during the pandemic, many administrations struggled to develop and deliver one. Achieving this means adapting to a more integrated model of government communication that can better support and inspire diverse populations through recovery and beyond.

In order to deliver what citizens need, we believe there are nine factors that government communicators must take to navigate through the difficult waters of the recovery period and beyond. These are summarised below and outlined in greater detail later in this report.


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