As someone who co-owns a health communication company, I’ve watched in horror the public health communications during COVID.
It has been like witnessing a slow-motion car crash. The official messaging from governments has been dense, confusing, contradictory and harmful.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were desperate for someone to save us. The Medical Officers of Health who conducted daily press conferences were our saviours. We had no information and they were our only information brokers. We breathlessly waited each day for their COVID updates and hung onto their every word. The adoration for them soon warped into the merchandising of t-shirts and shoes.
Never put someone that high on a pedestal. People are humans, not heroes.
Last summer I began to see the cracks in their carefully crafted public relations personas, which was supported by high paid consultants. There was confusion about how COVID was transmitted, who was high-risk, whether masks worked or not (they do), how to make schools safe and a myriad of other issues.
Journalists discovered data was being hidden or twisted to make COVID seem less serious than it was. This seemed like an especially contradictory strategy, saying on one hand: You must get vaccinated, COVID is serious. And on the other hand, oh go to the football game maskless, eat out in the restaurant, go to school because COVID is no big deal.
Public health officials continue to deliver their speeches in their ivory towers while the rest of the world burns.
Engagement is Dead
Clearly decisions were made with no consultation with the citizens they were supposed to protect. Increased visitor restrictions in long term care and hospitals were evidence of that. Who would agree that it is okay to be dropped off at Emergency by yourself? Not see their loved one in a group home for months on end? Deliver their babies alone? The ramifications for the people were never considered as bureaucrats crafted restrictive policy after policy in Zoom meetings from the comfort of their home offices.
Communications is engagement and citizen engagement is dead.
The vaccine roll-out shone a light on the elitism from the very top – clinics open only during business hours, far away from transit routes, confusing on-line appointment systems – and garbled messaging about it all.
Outreach was rare and it became wholly a personal responsibility to get vaccinated. Public health drew upon the tired age-old ‘blame the patient’ trope if you were not.
Worse, people like my son, who is disabled, had to advocate to be prioritized (based on the almighty science, which public health claimed to be following) for their own bloody vaccines. Talk about putting the burden of responsibility solely on the shoulders of the people.
When mistakes were inevitably made – and they were because health officials aren’t perfect – there was no admittance of missteps and no apologies were issued. The cult of perfection, particularly with medical officials, is particularly insidious.
Health Minister tweets of condolences for the thousands of people who died of COVID were cut and pasted by communications staff. Imagine your sorrow of losing your loved one to a preventable disease being minimized by distilling their whole lives into a number in a Tweet.
It's All About Trust
The gong show over this past year and a half has led to many people losing trust in the government. People simply do not believe what comes out of their mouths. This affects both those of us on the left (we think the reporting of people who have COVID is low) and the right (they think the reporting of people who have COVID is high).
In the end, good communication is about trust. Someone wise once taught me that trust comes from this: See me, know me, like me, trust me. The more officials hide, the more we don’t see them. The more they strive to be perfect, the more we don’t know them. The more they refuse to admit mistakes, the more we don’t like them.
It is hard to build back trust once it is gone.
Apologizing and admitting you have been wrong could help. Replacing current spokespeople with people who are able to be honest might help.
It first starts with telling the truth. Be honest about the trauma COVID is inflicting in health care to patients, families and staff. Stop hiding data. Start sharing stories.
And end the practice of only referring to people with COVID as numbers. Begin respecting your citizens as people, not treating them as the enemy. Most of all, start being human.
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