How do you feel right now? Upbeat, hopeful, motivated? I dearly hope so, but I’m willing to bet over the past few weeks you’ve experienced a flood of emotions that have made you feel anxious, upset, stretched and downright overwhelmed. Covid-19 is global and yet it’s local. It’s microscopic and yet having maximum macro-impact. We’re immobilised and yet frantically working. It’s confusing and unsettling to say the least.
But, and here’s the hopeful bit, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to catalyse on this moment of connection, and we must not let it slip through our fingers. The way we respond strategically, now and in the coming months, will shape how others refer to the story of this time, and how we relate to one another in the future.
We’ve seen messages of kindness and gratitude fill our social media feeds. The volunteers flooding to support the NHS are now dubbed the ‘Kindness Army’ by the press. Politicians have urged us to come together, be kind to one another and recognise our shared humanity. There is a real likelihood that this experience will bring our communities together in newfound ways, and we will be stronger, more compassionate and more connected as a result.
There are some excellent resources and materials that have come out about communicating Covid-19 strategically – I’ve included some of them below. They should be our guides at this time. They are crucial to help shape what to say, and what not to say. Unity in messaging is paramount at this time. In addition to digesting these and thinking about the way we frame and consider the words and phrases we use, we also need to consider how our communication makes ourselves and others feel.
Spokespeople keep repeating that this is a marathon not a sprint, and they’re right. But perhaps an alternative analogy is that this is going to be rather like a long, drawn out novel – a lengthy tome that is going to take some time to get through, rather than a concise short story. And, just as every story has a beginning, middle and an end, so does the pandemic. But the difference is, this is a story that hasn’t been written yet. It’s an open book and we all have a role to play in shaping the story that unfolds.
So, viewed like this, we can start to see a story arc emerge:
- How can we shape the early part of the story?
- How do we want people to feel in these early days? At a time when so many of us are feeling overwhelmed, how can we share messages of reassurance, interconnectedness and hope?
- Naturally it’s imperative that our communications illustrate challenges and uncover the hardship that so many are experiencing; there is a need to communicate the severity of the situation. Many people are suffering and their part of the story deserves to be told and shared.
- But this should also be a time of reassurance and unity. There are several key messages that will make us feel in control and like we can keep ploughing forwards. These are: 1/ We will get through this and we will be stronger as a result – we have to keep reminding one another of a sense of hope. It’s hard enough on our mental health without overriding narratives of despair that make us feel impotent and spike anxiety. And 2/ My care is your care – as human beings we are inextricably tied to one another. We are, quite literally, in this together. This is a motif that we need to come back to time and time again throughout this story.
- The beginning is a time when we can set the tone for the rest of the story. Humour was an immediate knee-jerk response on all our social media feeds and it needs to continue. We’ve all been on the receiving end of memes that capture the moment in witty, unforgettable style. A long humorous book is a lot easier to get though than an arduous never-ending account of distress, but the two can be woven together. We can paint the picture in people’s minds in ways that go beyond shock tactics and stark realities (think Dickens – his books wouldn’t have been half as popular if he hadn’t woven uplifting comedic illustrations alongside tragic accounts of poverty in Victorian London).
- How do we want the reader to feel when they are at the mid-point of wading through this long, drawn-out book? Could the narrative thread weave in a sense of solidarity and feeling of togetherness at this point?
- How can we ensure that the story is unified and clear, rather than jumbled, contradictory and rambling?
- Who are the protagonists of the story? What are we hearing from them? Or who is speaking for them?
- At this point it’s important to be clear that there are going to be some dark characters in this book and they will be whispering (and sometimes outright shouting) their poison. We need to do all we can to make sure their xenophobic bile is dampened out and is not the main part of the story. Engaging with them and giving them extra airtime only serves to lengthen their chapter.
- In their place, enter the heroes of our story. How can we amplify their voices and experiences so they stand out above the rest? Messengers are key here and sharing lived experience will be profoundly important. How can the stories we share be as authentic as possible? Who are the frontline workers, how can we celebrate their efforts and evoke feelings of gratitude and connection? Which of these characters will we remember when we look back on this story in years to come (note, for example, the refugee and asylum seeker medics poised to offer essential support)?
- How can we foster rich seams of reciprocity, kindness and generosity? How does the narrative make us feel inclined to behave in this way? Human beings are inherently social and we copy each other all of the time. We are always looking at others for cues as to how to behave. How can we write in chapters of hopefulness so that we all begin to mimic these positive behaviours? This is the time more than ever when we need to live out our values – in our neighbourhoods, communities and virtual workplaces. Could it be that #EmpathyIsTheNewMindfulness?
- Yes, there will be an end! We need to keep looking ahead and anticipating the closing chapters of this story.
- How do we want people to feel when they’re nearing the end of this epic tome? Well how do you feel when you’ve just got to the end of an influential, life-changing book – motivated? Inspired? Empowered? How we feel at this point is going to be the springboard for our actions and behaviour moving forward.
- In reality the beginning of this story has already been written to some degree, but there really is an opportunity to write these final chapters. Yes, this event is life changing; yes it’s unimaginably hard on us all and our loved ones. But, we have to look to the future. There will be a final chapter and it hasn’t been indelibly written yet (counting here on the fact that sequels are often not as influential as the first edition – here’s hoping).
- The end of a story is a new beginning of sorts. How will this story shape the way we think and feel in the future? How will it impact on the way we work and interact with one another moving forwards?
Read the messaging guides and resources below – use them to shape your messaging. But also bear in mind the role of each and every one of us in shaping the story that unfolds. We rarely remember the exact words in any given story, but an influential one will resonate with us long after the words have faded from our memory. This is nearly always because of the way the narratives and the characters made us feel at the time. Right now we can evoke the feeling of this story, and it’s within our power to influence how it ends.
Essential framing resources and reading on Covid-19:
– On Road Media improves media coverage and public understanding of misrepresented groups. They will be supporting people to own and share their stories authentically at this time.
– NEON is an influential network of civil society groups and coordinates and trains spokespeople – they are supporting activists to frame and talk about Covid-19
– Frameworks Initiative are putting out focused guidance on framing and messaging at this time, including how to communicate a common good frame and making a powerful case for the role of government. More to come – sign up to receive updates.
– Hope Based Comms is a global agency advising on how to shift messaging from fear to hope.
– Centre for Countering Digital Hate is about to launch their Don’t feed the virus campaign. Their work is drowning out the xenophobic, hateful messaging that risks being amplified at this time.
– Welcoming America are urging positive, values-based messages to maintain cohesion and cooperation and to double-down on virtual interaction and solidarity.
– The University of Sydney’s Policy Lab has put out a concise summary of key policy asks at this time covering: fair access to healthcare; shared economic sacrifice; enhancing social relationships; protecting democracy, rights and liberties; and building a sustainable future.
– Brigitte Nerlich writing for The University of Nottingham has collated a comprehensive summary of key metaphors in the time of coronavirus.