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Effective public communication during the pandemic

Nicola Archer Director 10 March 2021

Over the course of the pandemic, a unique public communication challenge has emerged in disseminating official information about Covid-19 to all parts of the population.

Effective communication should be able to account for the range of experiences and perspectives that exist within the British public. There are some commonalities to what we are going through as a collective, with a loss of familiarity and certainty. However, no single person’s experience of this crisis is likely to be the same. Each of us operates under a combination of different lifestyles, experiences and values that naturally influence where we get our information, how we make sense of it and how we act accordingly.

Perception of risk is also highly subjective and bound to interpretation...

Risk in particular poses a tricky communication challenge for officials, who may want to provide objective and quantifiable guidance to instill trust and compliance among the public. However, the reality of integrating a generic set of rules into everyday life is supremely hard as circumstances are not objective: they are complex and varied. While some individuals are more vulnerable to the virus because of pre-existing conditions or age, others have completely different risk profiles due to their living and working conditions. Therefore, as people go about their daily lives, there may be times in which personal circumstances and obligations naturally conflict with the official guidance, leading to a sense of moral quandary.

Yet perception of risk is also highly subjective and bound to interpretation. People respond to risks in accordance with their ways of seeing the world; some may perceive a situation as high-risk, while others in the same scenario may feel relatively unaffected by it.  This means that there must always be ‘more to the communication of risk than simply the disclosure of technical information, and more to the public response to risk information than simply technical understanding’ (Nelkin, 1989, p.96).

In the summer of 2020, Professor Stephen Coleman, Dr Giles Moss and Dr Nely Konstantinova at the University of Leeds set out to explore this line of thinking in relation to political communication. They teamed up with social and political research specialists and statisticians at Savanta ComRes to collect data on how the UK public received, made sense of and acted upon pandemic communications. Ten surveys ran from August to December 2020 and collected a range of attitudinal and value-based data to understand the relationship between these, and other sociodemographic factors, to pandemic communications.

Statistical clustering and factor analysis on first three waves of data (from 3,111 participants) identified six typologies. Following Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s cultural account of risk, these groups presented differing COVID-19 ‘worldviews’ based on assessments of threat. These were largely defined by differing levels of individualism, egalitarianism, sociability, risk-aversion, fatalism and hierarchical mindsets. Other dimensions included how confident participants felt in their own knowledge and sense-making, their interest and engagement with COVID-19 information and finally, their own experiences and proximity to the virus.

Leeds University duly compiled a report on each segment’s behaviours during the pandemic and their approach to communications. The segment ‘types’ were identified as follows:

1. Individualist risk-takers – tend to be individualistic and highly sociable, likely to participate in high-risk activities and know people with the virus, although still do tend to look out for information about the pandemic and feel confident making sense of it

2. Non-information-seeking sceptics – tend to have a very high risk-tolerance, prefer to arrive at their own judgements and making their own decisions, but have little interest in information about the pandemic and lack confidence making sense of what they do see

3. Information-seeking rule-followers – tend not to be hierarchically-minded but do have  a strong respect for government, closely follow the rules and trust official information sources, see the virus as a direct personal risk and stay up to date on the latest information

4. The complacently confident  – feel confident in their own judgements and decisions about how to be safe during the pandemic, unlikely to seek out official information, do not tend to know people with the virus nor do they feel particularly vulnerable to it themselves

5. Information-seeking critics – highly egalitarian and rule-abiding, feel confident in staying safe but tend to be critical of government handling of the pandemic, keen to stay informed but often view official guidance as insufficient, confusing or untrustworthy)

6. The experientially risk-averse – highly likely to have had the virus or know someone who has, are high-risk or live with someone who is, therefore tend to be risk-averse and fatalistic, often view information about the pandemic as a practical necessity

The key message in the report was the need for a communication strategy in response to the current crisis that takes account of these divergences between distinct population groups. The authors suggest that greater understanding of individual differences and values will lend itself to better civic debate and engender a clearer public sense of the civic principles underlying the national response to the pandemic.

Leeds University will publish further reports in 2021 with strategic recommendations for future communications that can be tailored effectively for each of the groups identified. These will draw from insights gathered in focus groups with each of the six segments and longitudinal analysis of data from all ten waves of the survey.

To view the first report, please visit the University of Leeds website. Data sets from the first three survey waves are publicly available via the Savanta ComRes website.

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