When an outbreak of a virus like Covid-19 hits that lacks vaccines, drug treatments, and high levels of testing, the communication that is delivered both accurately and credibly in the early days is by far the most powerful medicine in the arsenal Government. The reality is that in these early days the virus’ ability is relatively unknown. Given that the number of people infected with coronavirus worldwide was minimal to begin with, the data did not paint a clear picture or the death rate.
You now have a virus that is running into your country and infecting it, with no idea what path of destruction it might leave behind. The first few days of communication are crucial. One mistake in the beginning could prove catastrophic, not least because it could cause hundreds if not thousands of deaths. In addition, public trust in public health officials and the government could be lost, with far greater consequences in the long run. Let’s take a look at three key features of the Irish government in its early response to Covid-19.
A yellow warning
A shade of yellow that will undoubtedly be remembered for a long time. All official health notices on printed materials have been written in yellow and marked with the HSE and government logos as shown below. The color has become synonymous with Covid-19 in Ireland.
Cityswift’s “Keep Your Distance” is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The sharp yellow would grab your attention from a mile away, and it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was the perfect color to get someone’s attention. Within a few days, the yellow signs were at every single port of entry in the country, at airports, in shops and offices, and were behind all public health officials and government during press conferences at the Ministry of Health.
It may seem strange to get so pinned on a color, but in the business world, your first job in building corporate brands is always to identify their brand colors so that when people see the color, they know it’s yours right away Brand is. It’s an essential part of consistent messaging. Ireland was one of the few countries that took on a certain color and held onto it from start to finish.
Public awareness campaigns
In 2014, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced a guide for communicating about crisis and emergency risks. It’s a huge document with around 460 pages. The basic principles of good public health communication are very simple: be consistent. To be precise. Don’t hold back important information.
An important appointment of then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the start of the pandemic was that of John Concannon. Concannon is a leading communications guru hired to lead the government’s public information campaign on Covid-19. Concannon and the communications department certainly delivered. Important public health information was clearly communicated via full-page advertisements in all national and local newspapers, radio advertising related to the Covid-19 guidelines was constant on all major radio stations, graphic advertisements reinforced the message on digital platforms with some very creative social ads Explain distancing.
Campaigning for public health policies and guidelines was relentless across all media in the first weeks of the pandemic and has continued ever since. The key slogans have been changed if necessary. Some slogans used were: Flatten the curve. It’s in our hands. Hold tight.
The messaging in all communications is simple, clear and precise. People could read them easily and know exactly what to do / not to do. The posters were so effective that they were even used in public places in the UK.
An Irish Government Covid-19 poster on a public toilet door in Blandford, Dorset.
However, the communications department had another weapon in their arsenal, a weapon so many countries lacked that they had incredible public speakers to coordinate together.
The three wise men
In the already mentioned guide “Communication on Crisis and Emergency Risks” you will find an entire chapter on choosing the right speaker. It is crucial that the speaker be able to give “a human form” to any public health message. The speaker must be an expert in the field. This role is so important because the fact that there is only one person speaking on this matter eliminates the possibility of conflict between messages, something we have seen repeatedly in the US. Step forward dr. Tony Holohan, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer.
Holohan hosted the daily press conferences and became the face of the Irish fight against Covid-19. A calculated communicator and public health expert, he was exquisitely designed for such a role as a speaker. Dr. Holohan is also the chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). NPHET is a group of medical experts who monitor the response to Covid-19 and advise the government on how to proceed.
When Holohan announced in July that he was stepping back from his role to spend time with her terminally ill wife, the public support was exceptional. Not least, he had put the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he did so while waging his own struggle at home. He was temporarily replaced by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn, who proved to be an extremely calm presence and formidable communicator.
Fortunately for Hololan, he was politically flanked by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister of Health Simon Harris. As a qualified doctor, Varadkar was by no means overwhelmed when he wanted to talk about public health issues. He left that job to Holohan, however, and dealt with the political side of things instead.
Important announcements like his historic St. Patrick’s Day speech announcing the lockdown of the entire country will be remembered for a long time. The speech was kept cool and put the nation behind the government to stop the spread of Covid-19. For weeks, parts of his speech were played in grocery stores across the country, a scene straight out of a war movie. It was his best moment as a Taoiseach. Varadkar signed up for the Irish Be-on-Call campaign and went back to work as a doctor one day a week. It only strengthened the message between the government and the public that we are really all together.
Then Health Secretary Simon Harris also played a key role in keeping the public informed and informed. Harris is widely considered to be the best communicator within the government, and if there were any doubts about these credentials, those doubts are long gone. While, according to his own statements, his ministerial record as health minister is not perfect, Harris stepped to the board when he was most needed. His daily late night streams, where he sat in front of a camera and reassured and informed the public, became a hallmark of the early days of the pandemic. He has built a huge following and people still turn to his guidance and advice in droves when he shows streams live on Instagram.
Fast forward to December 2020 and Ireland is again with the lowest 14-day incidence rate in the EU. There is little doubt that the planning and execution of the features mentioned in this article in the early days of the pandemic went a long way towards keeping the public on the side of government and health officials.
While it would be wild to assume that everything was done in Ireland without any mistakes, it cannot be denied that the country has avoided many of the mistakes made by other countries. There has never been an erosion of public trust in health officials and science like Trump that was caused in America, and our Secretary of Health has never been maligned when Matt Hancock was over mixed messages.
The clear and consistent health messages used during the pandemic combined with fantastic communicators and public health experts have undoubtedly saved countless lives and should serve as a case study for countries around the world to draw inspiration from as they tackle pandemics in the future .
“To roll onto another barrier” from Cityswift is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Peter is a digital marketer with a BA in history and politics. He is a member of Fine Gael. Twitter: Farrelly_peter