When an outbreak of a virus such as Covid-19 occurs, where vaccines, drug treatments and high levels of testing do not yet exist, the communication that is delivered in the early days, both accurate and credible, is by the far the strongest medicine in any government’s arsenal. The reality is, in these early days, the capability of the virus is relatively unknown. Given the number of people infected by coronavirus around the world was minimal at the start, the data around it was not painting a clear picture nor was the mortality rate.
You now have a virus racing towards and infecting your country with little idea of the path of destruction it may leave behind it. The first couple of days of communication are vital. Getting it wrong at the beginning could prove catastrophic not least because it could cause hundreds if not thousands of deaths, it could also lose the public’s trust in the Public Health officials and the Government which would lead to far greater consequences in the long term. Let’s take a look at three defining features of the Irish Government in their early response to Covid-19.
A Yellow Warning
A shade of yellow that will no doubt live long in the memory. All official public health messages on printed materials were done in yellow and marked with the HSE and Government’s logo as shown below. The colour became synonymous with Covid-19 in Ireland.
The sharp yellow would catch your eye from a mile away and it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was the perfect colour for grabbing someone’s attention. Within days, the yellow signs were at every single level port of entry into the country, they were at airports, in shops, offices and were behind all the public health and government officials during press conferences inside the department of health.
It may appear odd getting so fixed over a colour, yet in the business world, when building company brands, your first task is always to designate their brand colours so that when people see the colour they instantly know its your brand. It is integral component of consistent messaging. Ireland was one of very few countries who adopted a specific colour and stuck with it from start to finish.
Public Awareness Campaigning
In 2014, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America designed a ‘Crisis and Emergency Risk Communications’ guide. It is a massive document with some 460 pages. The fundamental principles to achieve good public health communication are very simple: Be consistent. Be accurate. Do not withhold vital information.
One key appointment made by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar early on in the pandemic was that of John Concannon. Concannon is a leading communications guru and was brought in to manage the Government’s public information campaign on Covid-19. Concannon and the communications department certainly delivered. Vital public health information was communicated clearly via full page ads in all national and local newspapers, radio ads regarding Covid-19 guidelines were constant on all major radios stations, more graphicly designed ads reinforced the message on digital platforms with some very creative advertisements used to explain social distancing.
Campaign’s for public health measures and guidelines were relentless across all media’s in the early weeks of the pandemic and have continued ever since. The key slogans changed when necessary. Some slogans used were: Flatten the Curve. It’s in Our Hands. Hold Firm.
The messaging in all communications is simple, clear and concise. People could easily read them and know exactly what to do/not to do. The posters were so effective that they were even spotted being used in public places in the UK.
An Irish Government’s Covid-19 poster on a public toilet door in Blandford, Dorset.
However, the communications department had another weapon in its arsenal, a weapon that so many countries have lacked, they had incredible public spokespeople who coordinated in unison.
The Three Wise Men
In the ‘Crisis and Emergency Risk Communications’ guide mentioned earlier, there is an entire chapter dedicated to choosing the right spokesperson. It is crucial the spokesperson can give any public health message “a human form”. The spokesperson must be an expert on the subject. This role is so important because by having just one person as the spokesperson on the matter, it disables the possibility of conflicting messaging, something which we saw repeatedly in the United States. Step forward Dr. Tony Holohan, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer.
Holohan led the daily press conferences and became the face of Ireland’s fight against Covid-19. A calculated communicator and expert in public health, he was exquisitely designed for such a role as spokesperson. Dr. Holohan is also chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). NPHET is a body of medical experts which oversees the response to Covid-19 and advises the Government on the steps it should take accordingly.
In July, when Holohan announced he was taking a step back from his role to spend time with her terminally ill wife, the outpouring support from public was extraordinary. Not least had he taken the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he did so while fighting his own battle at home. He was temporarily replaced by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn who proved himself to be an extremely calm presence and an impressive communicator.
Luckily for Hololan, he was flanked politically by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris. As a qualified doctor himself, Varadkar was by no means out of his depth if he were to speak on public health matters however, he left that task to Holohan and instead he handled the politics side of things.
Key announcements such as his historic St Patrick’s Day speech in which he announced the lockdown of the entire country, will live long in the memory. Coolly delivered, the speech got the nation behind the Government in their quest to stop the spread of Covid-19. For weeks after, parts of his speech were being played in grocery stores across the country, a scene straight out of a wartime movie. It was his finest moment as Taoiseach. Varadkar signed up for Ireland’s Be on Call Campaign and began working as a doctor again for one day a week. It only strengthened the message between the government and the public that we really are all in this together.
Then Minister for Health Simon Harris also played a key role in keeping the public onside and informed. Harris is widely regarded as the best communicator within the Government and if there was any doubt of those credentials, those doubts have long been extinguished. While under his own admission, his Ministerial record as Minister for Health is not flawless, Harris stepped up to the plate when he was needed most. His daily late-evening streams in which he sat in front of a camera and reassured and informed the public became a hallmark feature of the early days of the pandemic. He built up a massive following from it and people still turn to his guidance and advice in their droves when he live streams on Instagram.
Fast forward to December 2020 and Ireland finds itself once again with the lowest 14-day incidence rate in the EU. There is little doubt that the planning and execution of the features mentioned in this article in the early days of pandemic have strongly contributed to the public remaining onside of the Government and health officials.
While it would be wild to suggest everything has been done without fault in Ireland, it cannot be denied that the country has dodged many of the failings of other states. There was never an erosion of public trust in health officials and science like Trump caused in America and our health minister was never vilified like Matt Hancock has been over mixed messages.
The clear and consistent health messaging used throughout the pandemic combined with fantastic communicators and public health experts have no doubt saved countless lives and should serve as a case study for countries around the world to take inspiration from when battling pandemics in the future.
Peter is a digital marketer with a BA degree in history and politics. He is a member of Fine Gael. Twitter: Farrelly_peter