Why ‘COVID comms’ need more artists and less jargon

As Victorians emerge from lockdown, cartoonist David Blumenstein thinks governments need more artists to help them focus on how they are talking about the pandemic. And it’s not another flow chart.
Why ‘COVID comms’ need more artists and less jargon Self Isolate if you feel unwell, image by Russell Tate. Submitted as part of the United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives.

David Blumenstein

Monday 2 November, 2020

Because I'm a born and bred Melburnian, I was doing lockdown before it was cool.

My wife and daughter were stay-at-homers with ordinary colds in February ('We don't want to give it to the kids at kinder').

From there we rolled straight into precautionary lockdown ('I think kinder might be cancelled') and then government-mandated lockdown ('Wow, everything's cancelled').

I'm very thankful for the hard work being done by everyone in state government and the medical community, who have, over time, adjusted to the needs of the situation.

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I'm also thankful to everyone in Melbourne who chose to take this thing seriously despite the conservative political lobby and conservative media demanding we Open Up For Business. It's been surprising and grotesque watching theoretically “mainstream” outlets like The Australian nakedly advocate the sacrifice of our parents and grandparents as the right and moral thing to do.

I don't feel qualified to judge the course that's been taken by authorities in protecting us from COVID-19. But as a designer of services and a smart-arse cartoonist, however, I don't mind saying something about how government talks and how citizens respond.

This is a confusing time for everyone, and the information changes constantly. The number of moving parts is staggering.

Nonetheless, in the same way our strategic, logistic and medical response has developed, our communications need to develop too.

The pressure on our small family – from well-meaning friends who want to catch up with us in person, from Nana who wants to hug her grandchild, from local restaurants who'd love us to come back and eat in – has been immense.

We've tried to make the safest decisions, but emotions rule. We slip up.

If too many of us slip up simultaneously, we're in a lot of trouble.

Read: Did Fletcher mislead the sector on arts funding?

For Victoria's next haul – the one starting with reopening and, hopefully, ending with vaccines – we are going to need the best possible communication & explanation.

Since the beginning of the pandemic I've despaired at the communications from government. I don't think government is capable of handling this alone.

Premier Andrews' personal communications have been very good. Standing at lecterns and telling us things every day, whether we liked hearing them or not, has been good ‘emergency leadership’ on his team's part. The actual content of Victoria's communications, however, has been variable.

There are three major attitudes that COVID-19 communications need to tackle:

1.     I don't know what steps I should take, or how to act.

2.     I don't believe the virus exists/I don't believe it's a major problem.

3.     My mind is shutting down because of fear and I am tuning out.

Each of these will lead to poor judgment and dangerous behaviour. We need communications that take into account, and address, these attitudes.

I think Victoria's government (and every government around the world) needs to think laterally, think beyond ‘comms’, and employ their decimated arts sector in the creation of understandable, compelling and authentic communication around COVID-19.

Understandable

By ‘understandable’ I mean ‘not confusing’ – a basic level of legibility.

Some of the issue is that the rules themselves (created by committees, and by technically-minded people) are confusing.

We're being handed lists of arcane behaviour modifications and being expected to follow them all. And just as that list starts to make sense, we change up and begin following a new set several weeks later.

When people want to “do the right thing”, it's frustrating for them not to know what that is.

Put your planned rules in front of artists and ask how they would interpret and explain them.

Our neighbours sent us this flow chart. Given what's riding on my understanding of it, it ought to be the best-designed one I've ever seen. It's not.


Flowchart for Can I have Visitors at Home, via Dan Andrews' Facebook page.

I'm not trying to be Mr Snarky Designer explaining how I would've done better, but I would drive the reader's eye in one consistent direction (towards a Yes and No both placed at bottom, for example), and I'd avoid using different terms interchangeably (use ‘guests’ or ‘visitors’ – not both).

Compelling and authentic

Once we're capable of explaining simply and clearly, we can look at creating communication that addresses people who aren't thinking clearly out of fear, or who don't want to believe there's danger.

Governments seem to be capable of either:

  • confusing lists of rules, or
  • irritating ‘We Can Do It, Aussies!’ advertisements without actionable information, and without relatable stories told.

If I were a COVID denier, I'd be seeing these stock-image actor people, grinning and telling me to ‘hang in there’, as pure propaganda. Unsafe behaviour by a relatively small number of people who don't believe the message will be enough to kick off outbreaks.

If governments are going to influence this situation positively, they need to speak like humans talking to other humans.

Individuals know how to do this, instinctively. Organisations – corporates, institutions, governments – are not designed for it.

What is needed now will seem, to government, like a frightening amount of transparency, delivered in attention-catching ways. This is what artists specialise in.

Nothing we call a comms department is capable of this. They aren't funded for it, and they don't hire for it.

I think the best communications about COVID so far are real stories, from real people.

As the pandemic has dragged on, I've asked friends in the medical sector their thoughts about it. I've asked my COVID tester how things have been for them. I try to piece together a picture for myself of what's happening around the city, and the world.

Victorians need nuts, bolts, numbers and diagrams, but we also need to understand better how government departments are handling things. What does contact tracing look like? What will a "hot zone" look like? How are hospitals handling things?

Artists can and should be telling these real stories in ways that capture the attention of bored Australians who tired of dealing with this pandemic.

Victorians are getting on the beers. They're going to start taking their eyes off the media calls and the posters and the radio ads.

Government is competing for attention with the Murdoch press. It's competing for attention with the latest Netflix show.

So I'm begging the Victorian government – as someone who doesn't want to expire, separated from my family, on a ward – get help from writers, actors, illustrators, comedians, audio designers, animators, poets and documentarians who are capable of telling stories people can emotionally engage with.

And you need to pay them, by the way, because our industry is in the toilet.

I'm not talking about having artists waste time making ‘Don't Be A Covid Wovid!’ social media graphics.

I'm also not talking about presenting artists with narrow briefs to create government propaganda.

I'm talking about working with them, inviting them in as experts to help you decide what, and whose, stories need telling. Then let them do it.

Storytelling is powerful. The right information, presented in the right way, will give us a shot at reaching those three attitudes and changing behaviour.

Seriously. Recruit artists. They want to help, because, like everyone else, they've been locked in their homes for nine months looking for ways to make things better.

About the author

David Blumenstein is a service designer, the deputy president of the Australian Cartoonists Association and the co-founder of Squishface Comic Studio, an open comics studio and workshop space for cartoonists and comics artists in Brunswick, Vic.