Communicating in the time of Covid-19

‘Along with the struggle to overcome a disaster comes a struggle to define what it means. The two struggles are inseparable, and out of them a new order emerges.’

– Rebecca Solnit

Following the global outbreak of Covid-19, we all find ourselves living through an almost unprecedented global crisis – one which touches every aspect of our work and lives. As charities and campaigning organisations, many of us are scrambling to reprioritise – many things that we took for granted just a few months ago are no longer true, and many things which might have been low priority are suddenly extremely urgent.

In such a time of flux, many of our shared stories about how the world works – our collective ‘common sense’ – are being rewritten in real time. To most effectively bring about social change, we need to take this seriously, and adapt how we communicate accordingly.

The narratives that take hold during this crisis will shape the world we emerge into. Along with other strategic communications practitioners, Equally Ours have been following these narratives and working through their implications for equality and human rights. Here’re our top tips for progressive communicators, some narratives to watch out for, and our recommendations for how to communicate most effectively about Covid-19.

Jump to section:

Strategic communications top tips

Don’t cause people to bury their heads in the sand. Avoid talking about Covid-19 as such a huge threat that people think there’s nothing we can do to avert catastrophe.

Do acknowledge that many are scared and struggling. While we don’t want to cause fatalism, we must acknowledge the pain and anxiety this moment is causing. We need to strike a balance between the two.

Don’t romanticise the past. The anxiety of this moment can tempt us to speak about a return to a comforting ‘normality’ after the immediate crisis has passed. But that normality was unequal, unsustainable and painful for many, and left our society more vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19.

Do talk about the better society we want to build. We can do better than back to normal. We must inspire people by talking about the better world we can build, and the agency we all have right now to make that happen.

Don’t frame it as a war. Avoid language that frames this moment as a ‘war against coronavirus’ – this analogy makes it harder to hold the government to account, and paves the way for more authoritarian measures that threaten our human rights.

Don’t make it about ‘heroes’. We should absolutely celebrate key workers in this time, but be wary of describing them as ‘heroes’. This language makes workers risking their lives by going to work seem normal, rather than a scandal that should lead us to demand safer working conditions.

Do lift up the helpers. People all over the country are organising to take care of each other and their communities, showing that the best of us often comes out in times of crisis. Emphasise these to tell a much-needed positive story about human nature.

Don’t say we told you so. While the effects of Covid-19 might be proving that your organisation has been right all along about a contentious issue, telling people that they were wrong rarely makes them likely to agree with your point. There are better ways to communicate this.

But do demand better. At the same time, we should absolutely demand better from decision-makers. Be clear that the decisions they make now can help save thousands of lives. Clearly connect present actions to future outcomes.

Do focus on our interconnectedness. Our communities, friends, families and support networks are vital, and Covid-19 is making this clearer than ever. Emphasise this interconnectedness to widen people’s sphere of concern.

Don’t describe people as ‘vulnerable’. Talking about those at higher risk from the disease as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘weaker’ creates an ‘us versus them’ line of thinking, and distances us from the problem. Speak instead from a stance of solidarity.

Do talk about how we leave no one behind. Make a values-based argument for a laser-focus on inequality during this crisis. We leave no one behind not out of charity or self-interest, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Some narratives to watch out for

The ‘nanny state’ frame

This frame portrays the government as overprotective and overgenerous, and implies that this is infantilising and bad for the public, leading to over-dependence on the state. We saw this frame invoked when Matt Hancock declared a need to ‘wean people off’ the current furlough scheme, and a government source described people as ‘addicted’ to the scheme.

Though the furlough scheme is the current terrain, this frame has a long history in the UK, with Margaret Thatcher’s government often taking aim at the ‘nanny state’. That makes it especially familiar to the British public, and therefore an easy frame to invoke with language like ‘wean people off’.

The ‘economy versus public health’ frame

This frame sets up the economy and public health as being fundamentally opposed right now, and portrays any lockdown measures as sacrificing the economy for the sake of public health. It has led multiple commentators to publicly wonder if our measures to keep us all healthy are ‘worth it’, often suggesting that we are over-reacting to the risk of the virus.

This framing erases the basic fact that the economy should work in service of people, not the other way round. The way we tend to talk about the economy often obscures this fact, and this framing is a classic example. For that reason, we must be wary of this frame.

The ‘we’re at war’ frame

We see this story when we hear talk of ‘battle plans’, ‘frontline workers’, or a ‘wartime mobilisation’. This kind of framing tells that our collective efforts against the virus are a war, and the implications of it are well-documented. In a war everything is seen as secondary to the war effort, including our human rights and civil liberties. The stories we as a society tell about war too often frame strongman-style, top-down government action as the answer. It’s no surprise then that ‘war’ framing can lead people to more readily accept authoritarian governments.

What’s more, times of war often lead to a ‘rally round the flag’ effect – a phenomenon that sees a spike in approval of political leaders, and often dampens criticism of government policies. We saw this in viral social media posts circulating during the crisis, including one taking aim at the UK press, claiming that the British public ‘do not want constant criticism of our Government who are doing their very best in a very difficult and unprecedented global emergency’.

The ‘heroes’ frame

Though often well-meaning, the tendency to describe key workers as ‘heroes’ has worrying implications. In a frame that sees this moment as a war, the role of a hero includes risking their life, possibly even losing their life.

Describing nurses, care workers, supermarket staff and others as ‘heroes’ is dangerous. It normalises the fact that they could be risking their lives by going to work, rather than leading to a much-needed conversation about why employers have allowed these working conditions to become so unsafe in the first place, and how they can make them safer going forward.

The ‘vulnerability’ frame

We see this frame everywhere from media coverage to official government guidance. This paternalistic framing characterises the millions of us deemed at higher risk from Covid-19 as child-like, frail and dependent rather as than fully-rounded adults with families, friends, jobs and communities.

While often well intentioned, this framing is marginalising and diminishes a person’s value and worth. There’s an underlying assumption that older people and disabled people don’t have lives outside of the home anyway. And words like ‘shield’ compound this idea of being shut away, out of sight.

This frame already existed but it’s been reinforced by the virus – with, as we’ve seen, catastrophic consequences in care homes.

The ‘blame your neighbours’ frame

We see this frame in talk of super-spreaders, coverage of people ‘hoarding’ toilet paper in supermarkets, sensationalist headlines showing packed beaches, and in increased hate crimes towards south and east Asian communities. This frame takes our anger and fear over the virus, and encourages us to direct it at each other. This distracts us from directing it at those whose job it is combat the virus and, crucially, to enable all of us to take the steps needed to contribute.

The reality is that it’s much, much easier for some to follow lockdown rules than others. Some people’s employers have not let them work from home, some people do not have gardens or access to nature to exercise in, some people cannot avoid public transport without losing their jobs.

The government could step in to help equal out these disparities as part of a sensible plan to curb the virus’s spread, and many governments have. Encouraging us to blame our neighbours is to discourage us from asking why some have had to break restrictions in the first place, and how government action could be helping to prevent this.

How to communicate about Covid-19

Freeze or fight

One of the biggest obstacles to winning public support for social change is fatalism – the idea that the status quo is ‘just the way things are’, and that realistically there’s not much that can be done about it.

On the one hand, this situation has the potential to worsen that – people are scared, and fear can make us freeze. On the other hand, this moment offers a strong antidote to that fatalism. It’s showing us that many things we took for granted as ‘the way things are’ are actually changeable. That ‘the impossible now happens daily’. This moment is showing us that, for many of the changes that we have long called for, a lack of political will was the only barrier.

We must, in all our communications, be asking ourselves if we are communicating in a way that makes people feel that change is not just desirable, but possible with the right action. We must balance between being realistic about how serious the situation is, and being clear that public and political action can change that.

Don’t talk about the situation as so dire that people freeze.

Do highlight that the world is changing in ways we never thought were possible.

Do show that with the right political will, we can build a better, kinder world.

Lean in to our interconnectedness

Covid-19 is shining a bright light on just how much we all depend on each other, on our families, communities and support networks. Whether it’s our physical health depending on a mass public effort to stop the spread, our mental health depending on our friends and neighbours reaching out, or mutual aid groups in our communities making sure we all have what we need to stay healthy, the examples are everywhere. We need to lean into this truth.

There’s a really common frame, especially in societies like the UK and the US, of the default person as a rugged, self-sufficient individual, operating independently of the communities and structures around them. This leads to a very conservative way of seeing the world – it obscures the reality of structural inequalities, and undermines support for structural solutions that would make society better for us all.

We must always be telling a different story of how our society works. These different stories rely heavily on surfacing how interconnected and interdependent we all are – how we are embedded in our communities, how we rise and fall together. And how most people are good, and want to look out for each other.

Don’t reinforce the hyper-individualistic story that shows us all living, thriving or falling completely independent of each other and of our circumstances.

Do tell stories that show how much we all rely on each other, and how so many are stepping up to look out for each other during this pandemic.

Human nature

Organisations like the Common Cause Foundation have documented a perception gap in how we think about our collective values. About three quarters of us place most importance on ‘compassionate’ values (like honesty, community, equality) over ‘self-interested’ values (like wealth and power) – but at the same time, about three quarters of us think that most other people prioritise the self-interested values. In short, we all as a society tend to be much more compassionate than we think.

This gap is crucial to maintaining support for many regressive policies. For instance, if you think most people are dishonest, you’re more likely to support punitive systems designed to catch ‘welfare cheats’, even if it risks less support going to those who need it.

This matters during this pandemic, as recent events are making this illusion much harder to maintain! We’re seeing a lot of evidence of the good in people coming to the fore – mutual aid groups are springing up everywhere, hundreds of thousands volunteered to help the NHS, doctors came out of retirement, people are organising to deliver food and pick up prescriptions for their neighbours. This is in fact how people normally react in emergencies.

This is one end of a spectrum of how this crisis is talked about. The other end emphasises panic buying, hoarding, and other self-interested behaviour that is not representative of how most of us have reacted to the crisis. These stories of society as largely self-interested, as we’ve seen, prompt support for more regressive policies, and make our job of upholding equality and human rights harder. It’s for this reason that we must lift up the good we’re seeing during this pandemic.

Don’t focus on stories of individuals behaving selfishly during this pandemic.

Do lift up the many stories of people looking out for each other and cooperating to get through this crisis. Remind people that most of us share compassionate values and act accordingly.

Holding the government to account

As we’ve seen above, there are multiple narrative trends working to shut down criticism of the government in this time. The emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ that comes from the ‘blame your neighbour’ frame discourages us from looking to the government for the causes of our problems, and the ‘rally round the flag’ effect encourages us to see dissent as unpatriotic and inappropriate in the midst of a crisis.

As we’ve documented elsewhere, there is much, much more that decision makers need to do to uphold equality and human rights in their response to the pandemic. Not pushing for better is not an option. But to navigate this narrative minefield, we need to do it carefully.

We must start from a narrative of government responsibility. Make a case for the role that governments can and should be playing in this time. We can emphasise that this is possible by talking about some of the measures governments have taken in other countries to support people through the lockdown.

Much as we may be frustrated and angered at the failures of the government so far, an over-focus on these failures will undermine this narrative – implying that the government is inherently corrupt and useless will only lead to fatalism. It can also leave us open to right-wing attacks that we’re using this crisis to further a pre-existing agenda.

Similarly, an over-focus on individuals in the government is likely to lead to a discussion of the merits or failures of that individual, rather than a focus on what action the government should be taking.

We must instead focus on what decision makers can do now to make the future better. Emphasise that solutions do exist, and that they can make a huge difference to how badly this virus and its connected effects impact us all. If possible, say what those solutions are. Crucially, put pressure on the government to act by showing that the only thing standing in the way of these solutions is political will.

Solutions exist, decision makers need to step up.

Don’t direct blame towards individuals.

Don’t focus so much on the government’s failures that people decide change is impossible.

Do emphasise that solutions exist, and put the onus on the government to act on them.

Talking about equality

We may all be weathering the same storm, but as campaigners on equality, we know that we are not all in the same boat. Those of us who were already at the sharp end of structural inequality in this country will be much harder hit by the pandemic. Quite aside from the unequal economic impacts, we already know that Covid-19 is much more likely to be fatal to black and Asian people, to older people, and to those living with some health conditions. In addition, we know that black and Asian people in England are more likely to be fined under lockdown laws than white people.

The unequal impacts of Covid-19 stemming from the structural inequalities in our society must be central to the conversation. It’s crucial that we don’t add to the marginalisation of more affected groups by framing this as ‘us’ helping ‘them’, for instance as younger people ‘sacrificing’ their freedom to ‘protect’ older people. Similarly, we must avoid describing people as ‘vulnerable’ and marginalising them further still.

We must speak instead from a frame of solidarity. We appeal to people’s compassionate values by emphasising that we should all care about everyone’s health and wellbeing, because it’s the right thing to do. Right now, our country’s response to the pandemic is leaving many people behind, and reinforcing existing inequalities. As a compassionate society none of us should tolerate that. Our response must include everyone, no exceptions.

We must also be strategic in how we talk about inequality. As campaigners who work on the issue every day, ‘inequality’ as a concept is often enough to motivate us to action, but this doesn’t hold true for the wider public. We must be explicit about the unequal impacts, to bring this inequality to life for people.

Don’t play down inequality, and don’t frame it as ‘us’ helping ‘them’.

Do show how our shared values mean none of us should accept this inequality, and emphasise how a compassionate society leaves no one behind.

What comes next?

It’s usually a good move to ask people to think about the kind of future they’d want for the world, rather than starting from the present we have. Starting from higher-level questions about what kind of place do we want to be, what values do we want to uphold, often leads people to think in more progressive terms.

While this pandemic is undoubtedly a moment of destruction and pain, it does offer us some space to think in these terms. With so much upheaval, we don’t have to go full steam ahead back to the world we had before. We can pause and reflect, and ask ourselves what kind of post-pandemic world do we want to build?

The lockdown has also showed us just how changeable the world is. It’s showed us what our cities look like with less air pollution, showed us a glimpse of a much more redistributive government than we’ve been told is possible, showed that we can pause mortgage payments and evictions.

How should we talk about this to encourage this positive reflection and interrogation of the way things were before? Firstly, we must resist the urge to romanticise our old ‘normal’ – while there’s understandably much that we might miss, there’s also plenty about how the world was and is that left us vulnerable to a pandemic in the first place, and made many people’s lives incredibly hard. Looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses in this way risks making people passive – instead, we want people to be engaged and thoughtful.

We should emphasise how changeable the world has revealed itself to be, to show that we have more options than a straightforward ‘back to normal’. Metaphors like ‘build back better’ help do this – ‘build’ implies intent and hard work, and better reminds us that we don’t have to settle for the same world we had before.

While we acknowledge the pain and destruction that so many of us are living through in this moment, we can build a better world after the immediate crisis has passed. We must shout this truth loudly.

Don’t romanticise the way the world was before the pandemic hit.

Do prompt people to be thoughtful about how they would like the world to be, and emphasise the agency that we have right now to make it happen.

Further reading

We’ll continue to update this resource as new frames emerge and develop, and as new research is released.

We’ve been collecting recommendations and evidence from our networks on what’s needed for a compassionate, comprehensive response to Covid-19. Read more at our Covid-19 resource hub.

What is strategic communications, and how does it teach us to communicate better about structural equality? See our Talking about Equality guide (pdf).

Equally Ours has trained more than 300 organisations to create messages that change hearts and minds. Find out more about our strategic communications training here.

Thank you to the organisations and practitioners whose research and guidance informed our recommendations: PIRC, NEON, Uplift, ASO Communications, Frameworks Institute, Opportunity Agenda, Kirsty McNeil, Brigitte Nerlich, The Common Cause Foundation, and more.

Share this