From Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Communication

6 December

After the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday in October the numbers of COVID cases rose, exactly as we had been warned they might.  People travelled, people gathered together to celebrate the holiday.  In Ontario, Ottawa along with Toronto and two cities in the same area were classified as red zones, the highest of the four colour codes and once again restrictions were imposed.  Then just lately Ottawa moved back into the orange classification and numbers descended substantially, only to ascend again and then descend a little.  Up and down the numbers go.  It seems that we just cannot stay the course of social distancing and mask wearing and hand washing, even with a full-page warning in the national newspaper.  In early November we were told by the city Medical Officer of Health that COVID would be with us for the foreseeable future and that we need to learn to live with it. A new communications campaign was released aimed at encouraging Ottawa residents to consider the reasons they have to help prevent the spread of COVID and to focus more on what you can do – such as outdoor activities (in this, one of the coldest capital cities in the world).  It is clear there needs to be an effective communication strategy, one that the citizens understand so that they may comprehend and comply.

Many years ago I attended a conference for an association of European and Latin American universities and was struck by a presentation that described the year long strategy of a Scandinavian university to introduce a proposed new initiative, and how successful it had been in engaging faculty and staff who might otherwise have been resistant.  This presentation piqued my abiding, albeit lay, interest in communication strategies.  And working at UNESCO, an international organization that supports oral communication in multiple languages through simultaneous interpretation and releases documentation translated into multiple languages, underlined for me the importance of clarity of language.

Telling people to comply with restrictions to ‘flatten the curve’ always annoyed me as an ineffective way of saying that if cases were to continue to increase, healthcare services would not be able to care for all the sick – those with COVID but also those having heart attacks, strokes, necessary surgery and so on .  Continuing to grumble at vague, incoherent and sometimes misleading messages, I was pleased to come upon an article in the 2 December Axios AM daily newsletter.  Reporting on a poll “Changing the COVID Conversation” conducted by a pollster, Dr. Frank Lutz, and the nonpartisan de Beaumont Foundation.  Dr. Luntz noted “The words our leaders are using need an immediate upgrade. What they are saying isn’t working.”  He noted that language used is often politicising the virus and Americans are “tuning out”, especially Republicans if they feel their constitutional rights are infringed.

More effective language includes:

  • Stay at home not lockdown,
  • Protocols not mandates,
  • Pandemic (more scary) not COVID-19 or coronavirus,
  • Eliminating the virus not defeating or crushing (war-like language can politicize).     

And emphasis on speed tends to undermine trust in the safeness of the vaccine.

Although the poll was based upon the responses of 1.100 Americans and addresses the current politicisation of much in American discourse, there are useful lessons for Canada and other countries.

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