With his goatee and designer glasses, Quebec’s director of public health, Horacio Arruda, cuts a striking figure behind a podium. His name and distinctive image were everywhere in the province this spring: T-shirts, cans of hipster beer, Facebook groups dedicated to his worship. During the first wave of the pandemic, the bureaucrat became a star.
So it was perhaps a sign of the times when it emerged, earlier this month, that Dr. Arruda had hired a communications coach. If Quebeckers were less than shocked at the news, it was because the doctor’s star has waned. His rambling answers, once valued for their sincerity, were now accused of sowing confusion. His bubbly personality fell out of step with the public mood.
Leaders of the country’s COVID-19 response, from coast to coast, can no doubt relate. The grace period that greeted them in the pandemic’s fearful early months is gone, as fatigue and frustration set in, more than nine months after the virus took hold in Canada. During the first phase of a crisis, people tend to seek clear direction. “We want to know there’s someone telling us what to do, and they tend to be well-received,” said Alexandre Coutant, assistant professor of social and public communications at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “Things get a little rougher after that.”
Experts in public-health communication warn that this long second wave demands a new approach to levelling with citizens, as more of them tune out health advice. Heidi Tworek, an associate professor of history and public policy at the University of British Columbia, said leaders need to find ways of keeping the public on board over the long term by communicating in a way that is transparent, empathetic and not overly reliant on one voice. A message that’s sustainable for months or a year will need to look different from the early blitz of press conferences in March and April, she said.
“We’re in a phase of habit formation, which is a different challenge from the spring, when you were getting people to do things for the first time.”
Examples abound of the whiplash caused by this shift. Deena Hinshaw once inspired memes about her calm demeanour and nerdy-chic wardrobe, but Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is now battling leaked recordings of meetings with other bureaucrats and a health network on the brink. B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, had songs composed and a mural painted in her honour in the spring but now faces heightened criticism for the province’s lax policy on mask-wearing.
Some of the shift can be attributed to earlier communications failures “coming home to roost,” said Prof. Tworek, who co-authored a recent report from UBC on “Democratic Health Communications during COVID-19.” The study looks at how nine countries and two Canadian provinces have delivered public-health messages since March and contains harsh criticism of the Ontario government in particular.
Premier Doug Ford’s government emphasized protecting one’s self and family from the virus early in the pandemic, rather than protecting others, which may have led to a weaker sense of social solidarity, the report says.
The Ford government also handed down relatively “granular” advice and regulations, Prof. Tworek argues, such as 10-person social “bubbles,” rather than emphasizing broad principles of safe conduct such as limiting the size of gatherings. That has left Ontarians primed to expect specific and evolving guidance on how to behave, she said, evidenced by “this weird desire to know what to do for Halloween.”
The first phase of the pandemic also contained plenty of communications success stories. The authors of the report applaud governments that roped members of the public into their messaging efforts. (”When you get one figurehead, you can get into trouble over time,” said Prof. Tworek.) B.C. Premier John Horgan solicited local celebrities such as Seth Rogen to encourage members of the public to stay home and was rewarded with a tweet from the actor urging British Columbians to “hang out alone and smoke weed.”
Jurisdictions that spoke to their citizens with compassion also seemed to fare well. The South Korean government was attentive to the mental-health strain of the pandemic and even sent “pet plants” to people in quarantine.
Like many B.C. residents, Prof. Tworek was full of praise for Dr. Henry’s warm communications style, summed up by her oft-repeated slogan, “Be kind, be calm, be safe.” Dr. Henry eschewed common military metaphors in describing the pandemic, preferring to call it a “storm,” and avoided shaming people who skirted the rules, explaining, “We don’t know everyone’s story.”
The report notes that Dr. Henry took an effective good cop, bad cop approach with other provincial leaders, allowing elected politicians to deliver bad news about stricter enforcements measures, which helped maintain the doctor’s rapport with the public.
In fact, recent data collected by a group of Quebec researchers suggest there is plenty of good news about how Canadians responded to public-health messages during the pandemic. Asked whether they thought provincial measures were clear and coherent with one another on a scale of one to 10, a survey group of more than 3,000 people responded with an average score of about 7.5, giving fairly consistent answers at regular intervals between April and November.
There have been plenty of communications failures this year, and the survey scores for clarity have fallen slightly over time. But Roxane de la Sablonnière, a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and one of the project’s lead researchers, said Canadians are clearly getting the picture about COVID-19 safety: Her data also show high rates of compliance with common public-health advice such as maintaining physical distance and staying home when possible.
The goal now, she argued, should be reinforcing strong social norms around these behaviours. Research on encouraging recycling, for example, shows that people respond better to being told everyone is doing it, rather than hearing it is good for the environment or even for their children.
Bolstering morale during the holiday season and beyond will require this kind of persuasion, even if it comes with the help of a communications coach.
“We should be telling people, ‘What you’re doing is great!’ ” said Prof. de la Sablonnière. “Put the emphasis on that, rather than ‘We’re going to send the police to your home for Christmas.’ ”
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