We’ve All Been Infected With a Covid Side-Effect… And There Is No Cure

In The Comey Rule then-FBI Director James Comey, played by Jeff Daniels, remarks that the Bureau losing the trust of its public is nothing less than “a bell that can never be unrung”. Similarly, the information vacuum created by the NI Executive’s confusion, frequent poor leadership at individual level and – in places – crude self-interest during the Covid crisis created a space now occupied permanently by cranks, conspiracy theorists, attention-clamouring ‘influencers’ and small government hyper-fanatics.

In particular, and this cannot be emphasised enough, a failure to aggressively and creatively market the Covid response effort and its reasons as opposed to merely update on its latest chapter was met with a woefully ill-informed and ill-tempered response by some political reps meaning it, in turn, fed into a perfect storm of online chaos.

A side-effect of this cycle? As Daniels’ James Comey would say “a tiny hole” has now drained the “reservoir of trust” in the Executive and has caused long-term damage to how the authorities in NI will be able to communicate with the population in the future.

In other words: widespread distrust of NI government communications in a crisis. A breakdown in the information flow during future emergencies.

A bell that can never be unrung.


The ‘Long Covid’ Facing NI Government Communications: How It Happened


Early in 2020 we were all faced with a horrifyingly simple situation: a pandemic spreading our way required action from every one of us to reduce its impact in NI. This also meant everyone, including political reps and newspapers too , being faced with the same choice. And that was to (A) either support a single, NI-wide, democratically decided course of action or (B) don’t. Crucially, any option (C) damages the effectiveness of option (A).

The Executive began, amid the usual wrangling and gallery-playing, to hold regular press conference-type events. There’s little issue with these and the good work of Robin Swann throughout should be noted.

What the Executive didn’t apparently do, though, was launch a major and ongoing, rapidly reactive marketing campaign to answer the vast number of questions being asked online by those who didn’t understand the reasoning behind X restriction.

This created an information void we have seen being filled with University of YouTube gibberish and posturing by political and social media figures ever since. 

Belfast Telegraph COVID coverage

Another sure sign of an information vacuum appearing? Political reps and even journalists openly asking the type of embarrassingly basic crowd-pleasing Covid questions of their social media audience a reasonable person would assume they are paid to be researching and answering.

Generally, the person asking the question doesn’t want to hear the answer.

This enabled a view, signalled by some community leaders in our society, that Covid is an issue where individual members of society have no responsibility to find out information or to go a step further to understand the ‘why’ but instead to throw their hands up in refusal if Robin Swann et al haven’t already landed a precise explanation for their precise permutation of enquiry at their feet.

Ultimately, it’s like political reps showing voters that its OK to ignore a new speed limit because no one – including the political rep – took the time to find out why it is there.

Should the reasons have been communicated better? Yes. Does that negate an individual’s responsibility, or even the responsibility of a political rep or person with influence to find out more for themselves? No.


The ‘Long Covid’ Facing Government Communications: The Result


One of the finest observations of the Covid crisis has come from journalist Amanda Ferguson who pointed out that “Covid reveals who you are”.  And, oh boy, were we about to find out.

Some of the first cracks of dissent came from newspaper commentators who saw the opportunity for rapid clicks and the heady heights of personal infamy. Some of the biggest names in local social media, also attracted like a moth to the spotlight of contrarianism-fuelled social engagement, weren’t far behind.

Chart showing depravation in NI and Covid cases

Then, the political figures who failed in the task of parking their ideology even briefly to join in a single, united community effort against a common foe began solo runs, griping from the sidelines, apparent party splits, needless special interest groups representations and much worse. Attempts to sectarianise the issue – thoroughly debunked using data shared by Peter Donaghy on Twitter correctly identifying poverty as the headline factor behind the spread of Covid – were, even by our standards, a horrific political low.

This all means government information in an emergency is no longer seen as ‘what we all need to do’ but something to be mulled over as an individual choice for everyone to go in thousands of individual directions as the spirit and notion moves them.

It is now also the norm for a government crisis decision to met online with zero-effort disbelief by a political rep play-acting like a barrister playing to their core vote in a pretend courtroom despite their – salaried – role being to act as a judge representing everyone and with a duty to inform, not enflame, their constituents.


The ‘Long Covid’ Facing Government Communications: What Should’ve Happened


Within the past few weeks we have lobby groups shouting down the Executive’s response – with their help of well-placed Stromont supporters – plus the surreal sight of local fashionistas, YouTube-addicts and the conspiracy-enthralled being given equal billing with experts to pontificate over their individual views. The rise of the predominantly male, middle-aged ‘amateur virologist’ and their scientist-trolling replies being one of the more accursed online trends of this bizarre year.

Sunday Life Covid article

The problem with this? As a Freemason known to me commented: “Organise a conspiracy? We can’t even decide where to go for lunch”.

But the credibility of the tinfoil hat brigade is growing as we speak.

This could have been avoided by constant, very blunt and very reactive marketing messaging not just drilling down to the why of a restriction but answering the questions everyone is asking. After all, many of their political reps have failed to provide even the most simple answers as it is.

What should the marketing meeting behind this look like? A big, virtual whiteboard containing media, social media and political analysis to uncover easily-resolved questions like:

• How come I can do X but can’t go to X?
• Why haven’t masks stopped the virus and how do they work?
• How can a virus ‘only come out at 10pm?’

Etc etc etc. Every single day. And it needed to broadcast its message online, in print and in the community constantly. Every single day.

After all, 80% of the confusion seemed to come from a simple misunderstanding of 20% of the messaging. 

But the marketing never arrived.


The ‘Long Covid’ Facing NI Government Communications: What Next


There’s no doubt that Covid, over time, revealed fanatical individualism in elements of politics, the media and in society across NI. The three groups have empowered the other, creating an environment where the weakly-promoted message has collapsed in on itself.

Research showing COVID restrictions approval by country

Analysis would suggest that the UK stands alongside Trump’s US in the scale of its refusal to get behind government actions to combat Covid. In the language of Donald’s faithful: “…the companion of fools will suffer harm”.

Alongside this lack of support, a failure to use creative, bold marketing to respond to the questions people needed answered, bearing in mind their politicians in places failed to show leadership, has meant that the means to communicate government messages in an emergency has now collapsed in on itself too.

In fairness, the fact that some political reps themselves didn’t understand, or pretended not to understand, ‘X’ Covid-response meant they were barely in a position to support a marketing campaign covering basics they themselves struggled to communicate.

But with Brexit around the corner, Covid still at our door and the inevitability of United Ireland referendum sooner or later this means chaos will continue to replace communications where the latter is needed most unless substantial, far-reaching enquires are carried out to establish how the consistently AWOL NI government marketing – as opposed to daily information – message got it so so badly wrong.

Why? We’ve seen the public sector marketing failure of lifetime. Like Long Covid, it involves real, human lives and like Long Covid we’re going to be facing down the unknown side-effects for many years to come.

Right now, the failure looks like a bell that can never be unrung.

Photo by LisaAttractLove is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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