Words that work in times of COVID-19 crises

by Radu Magdin, analyst and former prime ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova

This is the first in a series by LSE IDEAS and the Ratiu Forum analysing the COVID-19 pandemic within a regional context. Here, Radu Magdin, analyst and former prime ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova, discusses the importance of communication in the battle against coronavirus.

Words that work in times of COVID-19 crises

Photo: unsplash.com

The COVID-19 pandemic will test not only our healthcare systems and economies, but also our capacity to coherently function as societies. With people at home scared about their lives and well-being, with so much time allocated to different forms of media, communication done right is a powerful tool for making the most of our situation and overcoming the predicament. Our leaders and institutions have become, for obvious reasons, permanent presences in our daily routines, but it is a long way from there to gaining our trust. I believe that, before a medical solution is found, our vaccine against the social ills brought about by the pandemic is the trust we can build between our institutions, our leaders, and our citizens. Communication can literally save societies. What I will do is to highlight five aspects that are, based on my experience, essential for a coherent, credible and creative communication that will foster trust. This is how such a communication could inspire and help us move through the crises we are faced with: 

Framing matters. Choosing the right words is not a matter of trickery or manipulation. The capacity to mobilise and inspire is highly dependent on the ability of the speaker to deliver convincing narratives. This is not new – there is a ton of research in social psychology or behavioural economics emphasising this aspect, but what needs to happen is for simple principles to be internalised and put at work by those called to deliver messages of public interest. Some of those more familiar with framing will argue that the effects are short-lived and minimal. However, in the fight against the virus, any moment and any action matter. If I can find the words that persuade people to socially isolate and to follow the government’s advice, then this will be measured in the number of saved lives, in a  shorter period of time before everything goes back to -the albeit new- normal, and in less pressure on our health professionals and our economies. Coming up with the appropriate messages to convince people to stay at home even in times traditionally dedicated to socialising (Easter and other holidays are coming in Europe and around the world) is more important than betting on coercing and punitive actions. When the tough enforcement of rules is needed, communication has failed.

Test the messages. It is always surprising to me how we talk so much of big data analytics, AI and machine learning and our public and political communication only barely takes advantage of these opportunities. The age of gatekeepers and gut-feeling communication should be something belonging to the past, especially when every word matters, and people’s reaction is a consequence of the quality of the received messaging. Governmental communication war-rooms should test massively before sending decision-makers to inform the public. The tools are there, the expertise is there, what is needed is just the willingness to transfer to public communication a sort of discipline that is sometimes present in political campaigns and commercial communication. Even nice sound bites will not do the trick if not locally adapted to take into consideration public sentiment. 

Credible speakers. The message can do wonders, but the credibility of the speaker will do the heavy weighting. We were all fascinated by the Queen’s “we will meet again” speech, but what drew our attention was the credibility of someone who carefully chooses her words and has a reputation built in decades. The Queen did more than thank the healthcare professionals and those following the rules, she made reference to her speech during WWII and this way, all her decades credibility and resilience were put behind a message of hope. Merkel’s “It is serious. Take it seriously” was fully aligned with the Chancellor’s public persona and appealed to everyone’s sense of responsibility; with simple words and without strong emotional pleas – so typical of her communication style -, Merkel treated the German population as the adult in the room. Macron’s “we are at war” was directed at the French people’s capacity to unite and mobilise against the danger; after all, winning a war is more important than defeating fever. All these leaders caught the public attention with their addresses because they were able not only to make use of their credibility, but also to show that they were fully involved, that they had skin in the game. This sense of commitment is something for the political leaders of the European institutions to emulate.

The essential role of public communication. Political leaders are polarising by default and this will not disappear even in times of crisis. That is why, for the sake of coherence, efficiency and effectiveness, it helps to have robust institutional communication. A professional “Yes, Minister” operation, without the bureaucracy of another “committee” set up. Sometimes, this role of our institutions is forgotten, or they are fully captured by their political heads. But, especially in these contexts, the message coherence required for gaining credibility is more than a centralised operation; in fact, implementation and delivery are decisive. So, the message gets across not only when one leader/institution/expert delivers it, but when a multitude of voices are involved in the effort. Professionalising and bringing out the best in our institutions is such an undervalued, but essential task.

Bet on experts! The gravity of the crisis has brought the experts to the forefront. Brexit has diminished them, COVID-19 is bringing them back. With their geeky demeanour and with their sometimes-technical jargon, they give the sense of control and alleviate fears. A lot of us have become familiar with the US Dr. Fauci, but every country has or should have someone performing a similar role; China’s Dr Zhong has not only become a public persona but also a national symbol and hero. These voices are credible and can help the population understand the scale of the challenge, while complementing the typical political and institutional message. The more expert communication these days, the better, with the caveat that knowledge translation is equally important.

Radu Magdin writes on global leadership and communications and he is an international analyst, consultant and trainer. He worked as advisor to the Romanian Prime Minister (2014-2015) and was an advisor to the Moldovan PM (2016-2017) on a range of strategic issues, from political strategy and communications to reforms implementation and external affairs. Radu, who spent 5 years in Brussels (2007-2012) with the European Parliament, EurActiv and Google, is a NATO Emerging Leader with the Atlantic Council of the US (2014) and a Forbes Romania Trendsetter (2014). He is, since 2012, CEO of Smartlink Communications, where he advises people and organisations on how to best campaign and manage reputations or crisis. Radu is a well know analyst at home and abroad, having being quoted previously by Associated Press, NY Times, Al Jazeera, Euronews, Reuters, The Economist, The Guardian, AFP, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Deutsche Welle and others.