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Communications and Public Policy in a Post-Truth World

The explosion of fake news around COVID-19 vaccines has proven that disinformation and misinformation exists not just in dark corners of the internet and social media, but in the mainstream media as well. In a recent virtual chat organised by the Asia Pacific Association of Communications Directors (APACD), speakers came together on Twitter Spaces to discuss CARMA’s ‘Trust in COVID-19 Vaccines’ Report and the impact of misinformation on public opinion and trust, providing pragmatic advice for communications in a post-truth world.

The session featured Andrew Nicholls, Managing Director of CARMA Asia, Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, Global Head of Policy Communications at Twitter, and Rod Cartwright, Principal, Rod Cartwright Consulting and Chair, European Association of Communications Directors, Crisis & Risk Communication Working Group, and was moderated by Arun Sudhaman, CEO & Editor-in-Chief, PRovoke Media.

Heavy influence of political leaders on public’s willingness to vaccinate

Andrew started the discussion by sharing the key findings of the report, amongst which was the strong correlation between statements made by leaders and the public’s trust and willingness to take a vaccination. The report showed that leaders in the UK, US and Asia were consistently positive and factual about vaccination compared to their counterparts in the EU & Brazil.

Citing examples, French president, Emmanuel Macron, had the highest number of negative quotes and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed safety concerns on the AstraZeneca jab, which resulted in coverage with emotive headlines.

Indeed, trends from a YouGov study conducted over the same time period showed that the willingness to vaccinate in France and Germany was much lower than in the UK. Distrust of AstraZeneca specifically was close to 60% in Germany and over 60% in France, while it was below 10% in the UK.

Establishing clear unity of purpose and message

In this context, Rod highlighted the importance for communicators to understand the nuanced difference between crisis communications, which involves mitigating and managing the risks to their own organisations, versus that of emergency risk communications which uses strategic communications to help people understand risks and make informed decisions.

From a public health perspective, it is all down to influencing human behaviour. To influence human behaviour positively, establishing trust in both the message and the messenger is key. Once you lose that trust, consistency and clarity of message, behavioural loyalty and commitment start to break down irreversibly, as seen in the case of vaccine communications in France and Germany.

Social media as a means to tackle misinformation and disinformation

Commenting on the topic of influencing public perception, Lauren reminded us of the incredible amount of contradictory information and false claims circulating in the public domain and affecting people’s confidence.

Misinformation can be attributed to poor information hygiene on social media – people are not vetting the information they read or checking for accuracy before sharing it. Yet when it comes to tackling misinformation and disinformation, social media provides a means for government and commercial sectors to engage directly with the public. It is important that private and public organisations know how to use social media platforms as a space to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Purpose, permission and priorities

For corporate leaders specifically, it is critical to be thoughtful and purposeful in deciding what conversations they engage with. Rod shared the 3Ps – purpose, permission, priorities – those communicators need to consider when engaging and communicating on social and public issues.

  • Purpose – Are you clear on the ultimate purpose of your communication?
  • Permission – Do you have permission and credibility to engage on any given topic?
  • Priorities – Is it the right topic for you to engage with?

It is a complex issue, but having clarity of the 3Ps is a way towards establishing the unity of purpose and message.

The opportunity for behavioural science in policy and communications

Delving into the symbiotic relationship between public perception, effective leadership and effective communications, Rod raised the missed opportunities as he observed an absence in the way politicians think and operate that has really drawn on the expertise on behavioural science.

He leaned in on the ‘consistency nudge’ where leaders need to be consistent in what they are saying or asking their population to do, and the actions they are really exhibiting. At the same time, there is a space for vulnerability. Leaders who have the humanity and humility of tone have given the population the permission to be more accommodating when they may not be doing it all right.

You can listen to the discussion in full here.

‘Trust in COVID-19 Vaccines’ report is available for download here.

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