COVID-19 vs The World

Isabelle Scali

The greatest (missed?) opportunity for a powerful public health campaign

Yes…, I am going to talk about COVID-19. Nul points for originality but this particular angle on the pandemic has been keeping me thinking and talking for a few months now.

Before I set off on my analysis and share some thoughts, if you consider that the global health community is still figuring out the science of this virus, as well as working at speed to research treatment and prevention solutions to fight it, the World Health Organisation and various national governments have done a good job at getting everyone on the same page about what needs to be done.

But both as an individual and as a communicator though, I have been feeling somewhat  underwhelmed with any efforts to put out a public health campaign to help carry the type of behaviour change needed in light of the pandemic. Here’s my breakdown of what has worked well and what could have (and still can hopefully) go better.


The importance of truthful, consistent and clear messages

It’s safe to say that most people could repeat these three key steps in our sleep: wash hands, distance, wear a mask.

Indeed, the cornerstone mix of what makes good communication is all there: a message, who delivers it and the audience and a mix of channels. Yes, things were a little bit wobbly at the start of the pandemic as far as the clarity and simplicity of the message, but the experts got things  back on track quickly. This global audience understands what they are being asked to do but it would be fair to say the majority of us are struggling to feel highly engaged with the information by now, I expect because we have not been made to feel part of a positive global movement. There are limitations to how often you can tell people what to do, the risk is that it might never lead to real change and may even create resistance to the desired behaviour change.

Making people feel engaged as actors in the solution is a key aspect of communications in public health and can be boiled down to the fact that important messages don’t have to be boring. When undertaking such mass communication, you must factor in the way your audience interact with your content but also with each other, the social network element of the communication in changing behaviours and addressing issues in public health is critical. Feel free to check out this great WHO bulletin.

One way to do this might be counter intuitive but to amplify positive change, interventions to curb the spread of undesirable behaviour and content play a part in the complex public health equation. Our MHP partners INFLUENCE AT WORK have written on the subject if you want to find out more about addressing this issue.

The world has been working to educate and embrace a new routine at pace whilst living through an overwhelmingly challenging time for individuals. This is a scenario in which you know you have to grab your audience’s attention. Important messages don’t have to be boring and so on equal footing with the clarity and accuracy of the message, I make this claim: It’s about the delivery!


A campaign to make us feel good to do good

I had many impassioned conversations with colleagues and fellow global health enthusiasts about our frustration in the way the public were being engaged about COVID-19. Having worked with the HIV and vaccine community for the best part of the last two decades, I know first-hand about the importance of passionate engagement and powerful campaigns in capturing the hearts and mind of people, and why this is paramount to fighting the many facets of a global pandemic.

With COVID-19, people should not only be exposed to the issue but also feel included as actors in the solution, in a much more powerful and engaging way. Where is the equivalent of the forever striking Silence = Death efforts for COVID-19?

To keep momentum and high engagement, successful campaigns require to be developed and executed beyond the basic principles of good communications. Yes, keep your messages clear and adapted to your audiences, think about your channel mix,  but the ultimate challenge is to deliver them in a way that uniquely speaks to each individual…and we need to be talking to literally billions of people.

There have been some campaign-like bright spots since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these have mostly been impromptu and user-generated (which is fine) rather than strategic and deliberate.  The ‘clap for our health workers’ movement comes to mind. It made people feel connected to a single goal that carried a positive message and expressed why their efforts had impact beyond the individual. But this is a marathon and our collective attention span means there is now a gap to fill so these important messages continue to be delivered and heard to large audiences. We need once more to feel involved, if not even passionate about this fight. A well-designed engaging campaign could certainly help with that.

We know how to build powerful campaigns in healthcare that are informative, educative or action-driven to transform attitudes and behaviours. We create and execute them all the time, on various scales, just like our latest AstraZeneca “new normal, same cancer” campaign. So I want to be hopeful this can be done on a public health scale to get us through the COVID-19 pandemic.

AstraZeneca ‘New Normal, Same Cancer’ campaign video

The best researchers and experts are working on the science to get the world through this latest health crisis. I’d like to think the powers that be can also bring together the best comms and creative minds to design and execute COVID-19 campaigns that would transform the energy and attitudes to take the world to the end of the current pandemic. It could be epic!