COVID COMMS #17: If you’re trying to reach people with COVID-19 messages this research is absolutely essential

There’s this footage of a tsunami sweeping through a Japanese port that’s both horrifying and mundane.

It’s shot from a hill that looks down on the port. You see the wave slowly sweep in. At first what’s odd is the boats it brings with it. Great big trawlers as well as little pleasure boats crunching into seafront streets.

Then as the wave barrel;s through the town the wooden buildings begin to detach and move too swept bu the force of the slow-moving wave. What was a fixture is now moving in front of your eyes.

A similar effect is happening to the media landscape over three months of pandemic. People’s habits have changed and fluctuated.

Ofcom have published magnificent work that traces through the last three months. For public sector communicators this research is life saving in every sense of the word and I suggest you spend a bit of time with it. The most recent research dates from mid-June which makes it helpfully contemporary.

Key points from the Ofcom research

People are voracious in their consumption of COVID-19 news but how much depends on how old they are. Ofcom stats show 89 per cent access news daily. Over 55-year-olds consume the most at 94 per cent. The lowest being 16 to 24-year-olds with 84 per cent.

A big minority of people try to avoid the news. Just over 33 per cent will try and avoid the news. I’m sure some are successful but others I think rather like the episode of ‘The Likely Lads’ end up accidentally accessing it.

Traditional media is trusted most. Over 55s at 96 per cent trust traditional media brands. Aged 25 to 34-year-olds trust traditional media least at 51 per cent.

Social media is getting used for news less as the pandemic has worn on. At the start, 49 per cent used networking sites which has dropped to 38 per cent after three months.

But hang on, social media use for younger people tops any other channel. For 16 to 24-year-olds social is where they’ll go to find out COVID-19 information. In that demographic, 63 per cent will go to social media that’s three times as many as over 65s.

People are sharing fewer COVID-19 messages. At the start of the pandemic 25 per cent were sharing NHS, public health or government messages. This has halved in 12-weeks. This on the face of it is alarming to public sector communicators. But for me, this flags up the need to be more creative in your communications. The straight forward share of the Government poster feels as though its less effective. So think of ways to engage. Would the message be more effective coming directly from a nurse? The town Public health officer? A doctor?

People are getting COVID-19 information less from closed networks like Messenger and WhatsApp. This has fallen from 34 per cent at the start to 18 per cent after three months.

Misinformation is rife but falling. At the start, 46 per cent saw falsehoods but this has dropped to 30 per cent after 12-weeks.

Confusion is on the rise. As things get more complicated and there is more noise and more rules across four nations of the UK its understandable that confusion grows. At the start this was 17 per cent and this has risen to 24 per cent.

We trust the NHS even more now than we did at the start. At the beginning, 90 per cent trusted the NHS and now 91 per cent do. This is significant.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that what was working 12-weeks ago may not be working now. It also means that a one size fits all approach is doomed. We kind of know that but here is the evidence for you to argue against that.

It also means that traditional news brands such as the BBC or the local paper are places where people go for trusted information. Except if you are younger. You’ll go to social media.

Public sector communicators are really earning their money at the moment. But long hours doesn’t necessarily mean effective communications.

There is need for a constant re-boot and re-assessment of what is being done locally. These national figures should be a canary in the mine. Use them as an indicator of a broad direction of travel but test them locally too.

Try and measure how effective things are and adjust as you go. But what’s most powerful in the figures is that the point to the fact that different demographics use different channels.

Picture credit: US Government National Archives

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