Dan Slee

COVID COMMS #29: People are getting bored of repeated messages… so how do we now communicate them?

I’ve been feeling for a while that regular COVID-19 messaging has been failing so I’ve analysed more than Facebook 450 posts to see what the answer is.

Back in March 2020, sharing Government-approved content was the best way.

Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS worked. But they’ve been changed.

But six months on with a second wave upon us, the world has changed, trust has changed and how people are consuming content has changed.

So, how the public sector responds needs to change too.

Think of it like the Michael Caine film ‘Zulu’. Surrounded by the enemy they battled at Rorke’s Drift against a first wave. For the second wave, they knew they had to adapt. So they used nightfall to pull off a cunning plan with mealie bags and hidden firing steps.

Now, of course, a pandemic is not a film. But the idea of being adaptable is a sign of good leadership that works well.

So, I’ve looked at the data

To test this thesis I looked at how COVID-19 comms was performing on Facebook in the Black Country in the West Midlands where I live. I looked at 20 of the most recent posts in 22 Facebook groups to see what was cutting through. That’s more than 400 seperate posts.

Why Facebook? Because, in the UK, 43 million people use it and the battle will be won or lost on Facebook.

Why Facebook groups? Because it’s how people in the community are using the platform and how Facebook itself encourages you to use it.

I also looked at Facebook pages in the four Black Country boroughs that belonged to councils and hospital trusts. That includes Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverehampton and Walsall.

TLDR, what did I find?

Bad news.

Here’s the good news.

In a nutshell, if the public sector does what it did in March when the crisis first emerged it will fail.

Disclaimer

Facebook is one of many channels but it is the largest in the UK. You can lose the war on Facebook but you won’t win it on Facebook alone. But I’m confidant there may be transferable lessons.

Good news: for the big announcement people will look to the council Facebook page

When extra measures were introduced in Wolverhampton, people went to the Wolverhampton Council page to find out the detail. Using the metric of sharing, 1,600 shared the council post that spelt out what that meant for the city.

That was the most shared content across the region.

Bad news: routine calls to action artwork are failing to cut through

We’ve all seen the content.

Six months ago it was Government, stay alert messaging and now its more likely to be in-house designed versions of the same messages. Handy assets created centrally to work from Lands End to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Six months on and that style of content is no longer cutting through. Indeed, by posting it it dangerously gives the impression of effective communication.

Across the four Black Country council and NHS pages there were 16 COVID-19 posts across a 48-hour period. Fourteen of them were shared a combined 19 times. That’s not a good return on more than 166,000 page likes.

A locally-made video of medics cut through

The only content that cut through in the snapshot I looked at was an impressive video of three local voices talking about the continuing dangers of COVID-19.

The three consultants were clear of the dangers it posed.

This was pro-actively shared by the Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust comms team onto their page and then into community Facebook groups. This helped clock-up an impressive 109 shares when posted direct to the NHS page and an additional 595 when shared directly by Sandwell Council.

That’s a stand-out example.

However, points off for not adding subtitles. It means that you miss out on the 80 per cent who watch video without sound.

Yes, COVID-19 is being talked about in groups

Analysis of the Facebook groups showed 63 per cent of them were talking about COVID-19.

Of those conversations, almost half were sparked by links to mainstream news sites includiong Birmingham Live, Express & Star and BBC. That’s 44 per cent.

Once again, traditional media at a time of crisis is where people are heading for corroborated information.

Almost 20 per cent of Facebook group COVID-19 posts were debate started by people writing their own content. Fourteen per cent were video and 14 per cent were memes.

Just eight per cent were links to public sector pages.

The only conclusion of this is that corporate Facebook pages on their own are not reaching people in the busy Parish pumps that are community Facebook groups.

Fig 1: Types of COVID-19 content in community Facebook groups

Memes substitute debate

Surprisingly, memes were a significant part of the landscape.

Rather than type out a reasoned argument, people are turning to memes they most identify with. That’s good news and bad news. Bad news, anti-vaxxers are finding this as a way of landing their message and they don’t care so much about accessibility guidelines.

Memes are often witty takes on popular culture. They take elements of what we know and then subvert them.

The public sector hasn’t even got out of the starting blocks on creating content that will work here.

On the one hand with memes, the canny use of NHS branding and colours.

There’s a part of me that would dearly love to see an NHS Trust post this meme as is. Honestly. I’d love it. But this may be a step too far. But I think we should all start thinking of more direct language instead of the passive. The time for a Dad’s Army Sergeant Wilson approach of ‘I say, would you mind awfully?’ feels as though its past.

But on the other hand, some people are trying to play down the pandemic.

The sharing of anti-mask, anti-vaxx material is loud and widespread. It taps into general dissatisfaction and tries to exploit it.

So what can you do?

Get your own stats

Take a quick look at your Facebook insights to see what’s working and what isn’t. Remember, its not an admission of failure. It’s a sign of success that you want to refine what you are doing. Keep that insight cloe. It’ll be your weapon as you explain your shift in approach.

Human stories on video

Yes, I know its more faff but time spent on telling a local human story is time well spent. The Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Hospital Trust video with medical experts is great. The gold standard that everyomne should aim at is St Helens Council’s video of a man who has lost his Dad asking people to just play their part.

In the film, Paddy, who looks in his late 30s, talks about losing his Dad Bernard. He gives a St Helens context by introducing the fact he is from Thatto Heath, his Dad worked at Pilks for 36-years and was a member of Thatto Heath Crusaders.

Backed by cutaways of Bernard with his family and friends the film really works.

Now THIS is the kind of thing that works. Huge props to Bernard’s family and to the St Helens Council commas team. The 185 shares on the council site comfortably beats the next most popular COVID-19 content.

Why does it work?

It’s not Boris telling you, someone in London or even someone from public health at the council. It’s Paddy who you may know from school or work.

It’s also the right side of Facebook’s algorithm. It’s video. It’s likely to be liked by friends and family and it tells a story.

Counter anti-vaxx discussion on your thread

Facebook is a pretty toxic place to go right now. But you need to point people away from Karen on Facebook towards public health and NHS.

More media relations

Talk to the journalists who are left to see what content works for them.

Create memes that fight fire with fire

I absolutely approve of Birmingham City Council’s more direct approach which uses Birmingham’s bull emblem.

It’s time to be bold. Bolder than this, even.

Take your content to where the eyeballs are

As Sandwell’s NHS shows, pro-actively placing content in community groups where people can see it is a good idea. It means people will see it. That means investing in relationships with Facebook group admins and yes, that will take time, no there’s no shortcuts and yes, it will bring dividends.

I’ve said this so often.

But there is the evidence.

Don’t just look at Facebook

Human stories, firm rebuttals and a change of approach is what’s needed on Facebook. But if 20 to 29 year olds are the demographic who is seeing the biggest rise in COVID-19 then go chase them where they hang out. That’s instagram, YouTube and maybe some Snapchat.