Is it time to move on from COVID-19 communications?

Is it time to move on from COVID-19 communications?

We caught up with Managing Partner at opr Agency Nino Tesoriero about the findings from a recent report put together by opr Public and YouGov that asked 1,052 Australians, "Is it time for governments to return to business as usual communications or should COVID-19 still be the primary focus?" 

Key findings included: 
  • The views of public service experts, and government information in general, have been in great demand during COVID-19.
  • Most Australians are ready to move on from high-intensity coverage of the pandemic.
  • The public wants to hear more about other government initiatives that aid our recovery.
  • More Australians are returning to traditional media sources in search of trusted news.

Why have Australians listened to public sector experts more during this time? What has made their communication so effective and impactful?
This new interest in and respect for public service experts is one of the clearest trends to emerge from the opr and YouGov research. It found these experts are now more highly regarded in delivering apolitical, evidence-based information than academic experts, business leaders or social media personalities. People like seeing and hearing public sector experts in these times as they are regarded as credible and non-partisan. They are also liked for communicating simple messages in a calm way and on a regular basis.

How can PRs make sure public service experts stay relevant when the need for daily updates and messaging starts to die down?
Our research shows Australians want to hear more from public sector leaders and experts, and they want more information across a broader range of topics with a greater emphasis on programmes that assist in the country’s economic and community recovery. Almost two-thirds told us they are ready for a mix of COVID and non-COVID news, while 20 per cent are ready to move on completely. Financial matters topped the list with 55 per cent wanting to hear about government programmes that reduce the cost of living. Australians also have health and wellbeing on their minds with 45 per cent wanting to know about programmes for the elderly, and the same percentage flagging an interest in mental health initiatives. While our political leaders traditionally announce relevant programs in these areas, there are many opportunities for our public sector experts to explain these programmes in more detail and its relevance to particular audiences, as well as answer specific questions from the community such as on talkback radio. Also, with the Federal Budget announcements made and State Budgets coming up, there are good opportunities for our public service experts to further explain what the big economic decisions mean and how they will impact Australians in the short and longer term. 

How has COVID-19 changed the way experts should be media trained? Have there been key learnings?
In difficult times, people gravitate towards political and public sector leaders who are clear, direct and show empathy. People want them to confidently express where we are going and what we have to do. In this COVID-19 environment, people want our leaders and experts to provide as much information as they can and be open about what they don’t yet know. From a media training perspective, the focus must be on delivering messages with honesty, humility and transparency. In particular, the expert or leader needs to demonstrate they genuinely care about the impact of their work and acknowledge how people are feeling during the pandemic crisis. It’s an important reminder during media training sessions to help our communicators really focus on how they talk to and understand their audiences’ likely emotional responses.

The report shows that Australians are ready for a broader mix in communications, with greater emphasis on programmes that assist in the country’s economic and community recovery. How can businesses and the public sector best contribute to the conversation around the rebuild programmes? 
Australia has shown it is capable of putting differences aside to work together to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. We need to keep that collaborative spirit alive to get the most out of the rebuilding phase. The best way to recover is for every organisation and individual to do their bit. To support this, governments need to align communications across departments and agencies to explain the common goal of returning to ‘normal’. They need to maintain a strong and detailed stakeholder engagement program with key large, medium and small business representatives, industry associations, unions, social and community service providers, sport associations, transport advisers and health sector organisations and planners. All these stakeholders should contribute to the national economic recovery strategy, with tactics and timelines clearly communicated. To support a joint approach, it would be beneficial for departments and agencies to develop a range of tailored communication materials that can be used by each of the business and other stakeholder groups to implement and cascade relevant messages to employees, members and customers.

What is your advice for communications teams looking to get a media novice more air-time, especially when the headlines and press conferences are being dominated by senior figures? How can they secure that all important 1st interview?
Despite the shrinking media environment in Australia, there are still many great opportunities for media novices to get experience doing real interviews in a relatively safe environment. Apart from suburban, rural, regional and online media interviews, there are numerous trade publications and member associations with their own news sections that would welcome the opportunity to hear from a public sector expert on topics relevant to their audiences. But before you venture even there, it is essential for anyone doing an interview to undergo media training first, to help increase confidence and improve the effective delivery of key messages. Media training with mock interview scenarios helps lessen the fear felt by some people and reinforces the power of preparation.
The report says that political and community leaders are the best way to reach younger audiences. Can you point to any examples of leaders connecting with Gen Z particularly effectively? E.g. what medium was used and why was it successful. 
It’s no surprise that younger audiences, like Generation Z, are wary about traditional institutions such as government and are highly pessimistic about our political and regional leaders. However, it was interesting to see through our research that in the pandemic crisis environment, younger people rated the Prime Minister as the most effective communicator in getting important information across to the whole community. This could be due to the nature of the crisis, the frequency of the press conferences and the daily involvement of experts to support the PM’s messaging. In terms of channels, we can’t escape the power and influence of TikTok, which more than 40 percent of teenagers use. Increasingly, TikTok is becoming a platform for political leaders to connect with younger people – either directly in fun and goofy ways or through intermediaries. Recent examples would be when the ABC journalist Andrew Probyn became a TikTok meme sensation during the peak of the COVID crisis after the Prime Minister told him he doesn’t run the press conference. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has taken to TikTok to reach younger audiences for example posting a video of himself walking through parliament to the tune of "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by The Proclaimers. And then we’ve seen TikTok users reclaiming former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, with content creators lip-synching the famous response to make political statements on sexism in a more contemporary way. These examples show young people are interested in politics and political messages, but they need to be delivered in ways that are short, fun, creative, quirky and entertaining.

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