Ilmar Raag: The legend of coronavirus crisis communication

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Kairit Leibold

By now, political communication has reached a phase where we have an information bubble inhabited by politicians and political journalists who are busy mutually regulating the crisis, while most people solve their problems in an entirely different information space, Ilmar Raag writes in an analysis of current strategic and crisis communication.

I have been doing communication for 20 years, and I increasingly feel we should go back to the drawing board. Both those who see PR as the heart of black magic and those who are convinced everything depends on crafty rhetoric are mistaken.

Just as today's coronavirus pandemic is an empty panic bubble for some people and a problem of not enough communication for others. I do not believe either side has the whole truth.

What affects behavior?

A look at the press during the 2017 ID-card crisis left one with the impression Estonia's e-identity had been delivered a serious blow. But even though the scandal reached sky-high, looking at the certification center's data for digital signatures given or digital services accessed using the ID-card during the following month, there were no changes.

What we thought was a scandal only took place on the level of a part of tech intelligentsia, government agencies and the press. The danger was real and communicated, while most people simply weren't bothered.

A direct opposite example comes from the 2015 migration crisis when Estonia only saw a few hundred applications for international protection. The mainstream media adopted a liberal stance and criticized the government for being passive in terms of openness policy. And yet, a public opinion poll in June suggested over half of the population was against migration, even without knowing the exact details.

Where did this unity against migration take form then? In social media, of course. This means that the factually more accurate but ideologically too liberal for many press and government communication did not have a greater effect than social media that held more misinformation in terms of facts but simply reflected a more acceptable ideological position.

These examples lead to two conclusions.

Firstly: People inhabit very different information bubbles during crises. In most cases, politicians, leaders and the press inhabit one echo chamber where they are busy riling each other up. Another group, roughly the same size, actively distrusts the elite and goes down the path of social media radicalization. And finally, there are people who just don't care. The latter is often the largest group.

The second conclusion is even more serious – in most cases, it takes a lot more than verbal or visual communication to alter people's behavior. Broadly speaking, only two types of measures work: changing the environment around the person so they can no longer ignore it or people developing a fear for their life or well-being.

For example, people often move away from home in the face of the battle drawing nearer during a war. While we could idealistically hope people will alter their behavior following positive example and for the sake of benefit, practical experience suggests these kinds of changes are far slower to manifest than the aforementioned negative motivations.

What this means is that propaganda is relatively ineffective in crisis communication, while it's not completely out of place if we think about social propaganda slogans such as "Wash hands!" or "Care for each other!"

Activity-based strategic communication is far more important. It is always made up of two parts: an act that cannot be ignored (for example, closing of schools) followed by notification and explanation aimed at target groups.

Special characteristics of the coronavirus crisis

The main peculiarity of the ongoing crisis has been the shortage of dramatic events. At least in the initial phase of the crisis. To this day, most people in Estonia have not encountered a single COVID-19 patient. Everything we fear is tied to forecasts and relevant actions.

The situation is made worse by the second distinctive feature of the crisis – that the main risk is not to people's lives but extensive damage in which the economic cost of the pandemic is of crucial importance. This is even harder to predict as we're now talking about forecasting a forecast.

A fully rational analysis would say that expenses made by the state to contain the effects of the coronavirus would have to be smaller than the damage caused by doing nothing. While this is something where even expert assessments rarely coincide.

In the end, we are left with a single indicator – the number of people infected needs to start falling or disappear altogether. We will never know whether expenses incurred or sacrifices made were optimal. All of it comes together to form the perfect recipe for the worst aspects of human nature to manifest. Just like horror film theory says that evil one does not understand seems far scarier than evil explained.

Finally, we have the third peculiarity that is tied to the dramatics of crisis regulation. For example, the story of Estonians who got stuck on the Polish border. It does nothing to change the daily lives of most people and is rather filed away in the category of reality spectacles.

This is understandably a cynical assessment as the situation concerns a few hundred people quite directly, while the remaining hundreds of thousands are treated to a spectacle that shapes broader attitudes.

The public narrative based on which I could already write articles on events that will inevitably unfold has manifested in a way. The first coronavirus death, followed by the sob story of a person caught in the gears of the aftermath, with the tale of a bankrupt company and people laid off coming next.

If the first week has room for singing the praises of brave volunteers and doctors, stories on rigid officials, followed by revelations of the incompetence of Estonia's crisis regulators are sure to dominate toward the end of the second.

That is one phenomenon in the automatic formation of narrative that leads us to the next topic.

Criticism of the time-critical nature of news

If the current crisis is characterized by shortage of turning points, general news consumption has moved in the opposite direction, toward increasingly greater media drama. News media consumption largely speaks of the phenomenon of "the society of the spectacle." It is somewhat paradoxical that this has not come about simply on account of growing curiosity but has been caused by technological development.

It was around 2002 that I first heard the phrase "Online journalism killed journalism." Breaking news on television was a rather pronounced predecessor of this phenomenon. It started out by signifying an unexpected but important event, before networks realized news anxiety was great for ratings.

That is why when John Kennedy Junior's private jet went down over the Atlantic in 1999, U.S. networks were broadcasting from the coast, telling viewers, "Stay with us for breaking news." Dozens of extraordinarily meaningless news programs were aired before the wreckage was found.

That showed us how news content no longer depended on new information but rather the need to hold viewer attention and ratings. The internet only added to this phenomenon as people could now return to their favorite publication several times a day to try and find something new.

Every such return visit turned into a click that could be used to sell advertising. This meant having to produce some kind of media content to satisfy people's hunger for news at any cost. Do we really have so much important news with which to satisfy this craving? Of course not.

A simple way to prove this claim is the time-critical news test. If a piece of news changes nothing in a person's life or if it would mean exactly the same tomorrow, day after tomorrow or a week from now, we are not dealing with vital news. Is this phenomenon destructive in itself? Probably not, because there is nothing wrong with simply being curious.

What devaluation of news realistically results in is reduced quality of information. Journalists do not have the time to verify all the facts on the one hand and are putting pressure on the state to release raw information that causes confusion on the other.

Allow me to give an example. A government committee tasked with putting together economic stimulus measures starts work. No doubt, journalists immediately want to know which measures will be implemented. Sooner or later, they make their way to an egotistical minister who shares a few fragments of a still incomplete plan not all sides have signed off on. It turns out a little later that the actual measure will be different than what the minister said.

Who is to blame? The journalist who wanted the newest information even if it lacked time-critical value or the minister who wanted to stay in the frame no matter what, or perhaps it's the official who told the minister about the half-finished plan in the first place?

The result is information noise that no one really minds because viewer statistics suggest people are ready to latch on to every piece of information during a crisis. If normally, 120,000-150,000 people watch the "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) news program, ratings hit nearly quarter of a million people after the emergency situation was declared on Saturday. Reader figures of all Estonian news portals also skyrocketed.

That said, it is interesting to look at the contents of AK afternoon and evening news programs. It turns out that there is little in the way of new time-critical news, while everyone still feels they are being kept up to date.

Crisis-time media consumption reveals people's habit of viewing the same story several times. Just like footage of the twin towers collapsing was shown over and over again during 9/11 and always had viewers. This in a situation where seeing the same footage for the second or third time had no more news value whatsoever. We are already doing something else in such situations.

All of it makes it easier for nonsense to spread on social media.

The Estonian government's crisis communication

Criticism aimed at the government's crisis communication could be seen on social media already back in February. As state officials had made it their mantra that there was no cause for panic, it was even said that communication had taken charge of the government.

That was a crooked view. In terms of strategic communication, the phase was one of doing nothing as communication always depends on leadership. No decision based on which to take action means there is nothing tangible to communicate.

Rather we saw the typical initial phase of a lot of crises where the leaders cannot recognize they have one. While this offers ample opportunity for sprinkling the wound with salt, it is hardly anything out of the ordinary. The first phase of crises is always characterized by fog of war. In fact, the confusion is so great that anyone who has not had contact with crisis regulation usually cannot imagine that even the best systems experience momentary bewilderment.

If the ordinary person turns that fog into a conspiracy theory, it is defined on the level of governments as unknown factors in making time-critical decisions. However, what to communicate in a situation where half the government would gladly strangle the other half for lack of brotherly love, while the latter is at a loss in terms of what to do? It is a situation without a solution because the golden rule of crisis communication is that the one in charge must not hesitate. There must always be a plan.

Let us reconcile ourselves with the fact that the first phase of the crisis in Estonia was met with indecisiveness, which is a very bad sign in a crisis.

That said, when the government finally decided to declare an emergency situation, it was strategic communication as the new situation immediately affected a lot of people.

Therefore, strategic communication took on the function of crisis communication. The news had to be taken to people and started altering their behavior with the power of the law behind it. Things at times unraveled again from there as a result of information bubbles or "echo chambers" that are so typical of crises forming.

Primary task?

On the theoretical level, things are clearest when it comes to the part of strategic communication that deals with protecting the population. People have a lot of questions about how to manage their daily lives, making it the number one task of crisis communication.

Measures and decisions need to reach every person in a legible form, while people's concerns need to reach regulators as feedback. Feedback is one part of strategic communication.

If the measures work and are understood by the people, the state's credibility is ensured. However, a test question is in order here – what is the primary thing the state expects from the people? Or do you know what the state expects from you over the next two weeks or a month?

As suggested by past crises, nothing works with 100 percent efficiency. It would be unrealistic to hope otherwise. And yet, we can clearly distinguish already familiar problems.

Changeable conditions – changeable decisions

Firstly, the situation is constantly changing in unforeseen ways. This means that it is necessary to quash standing orders and make new decisions from time to time. An example of this is the shift in the strategy of testing for the COVID-19 virus where focusing on risk groups was chosen over testing the masses.

While the decision was an unfortunate one from the aspect of communication as it contributes to information noise through conflicting messages, it was probably necessary and sensible. The situation changing is part of the nature of crises.

Sensitive political communication

Things are much more complicated on the next level where political communication happens.

Yes, we must keep in mind that party political communication is taking place at the same time as strategic communication on the state level. And this is where things get out of hand.

On the one hand, commendable open communication sees leaders give an overview of the situation every day. There are daily press conferences. At the same time, we know this is not a sustainable format as it is likely government press conferences will interest no one in two weeks' time. Simply because relative shortage of new events will quickly see them turn very political or very technical.

The danger with political communication in a crisis such as this one is that it wastes the resource of people's attention. Because there is already too much information, the risk of people not being able to process all of it is created, with necessary information getting lost in the noise.

Let us take the example of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas' political statement in the Riigikogu on March 12 that caused trouble after ETV did not make it available live and free to air. But if you ask people what they remember from that statement, most just shrug.

It was the same information ministers gave during press conferences. It lacked in time-critical content and did not include a single clear political step people could remember as a turning point a week later. (Dear readers, do you remember the main idea of the address?)

We can continue this example by looking at situations repeated at several press conferences where different ministers repeated the same information with a slightly different tone of voice, all seemingly performing a sketch of the "true leader of the people forced to sit down with amateurs by cruel chance."

I'm glad ETV did not broadcast the prime minister's statement live because such addresses need to be saved for truly pivotal moments and not reduced to diluted versions of the news coming to you from the parliament.

Political statements must always include acts of symbolic significance in crisis communication. To take the currently popular slogan, "Now, we must stick together," it would only mean something if Mart and Martin Helme were shown shaking hands with Tanel Kiik and pledging to bury the political hatchet for the duration of the crisis. I do not think I've seen that yet.

Performances reflected in the press under headlines such as "Dispatching a ship to Germany considered" also become part of the spectacle of news. It is a half-finished and even dangerous headline in terms of crisis communication as it includes the possibility of having to explain the potential decision not to dispatch the ship to people whose hopes have been stoked. Just hours later, the headline "Estonia to send a ship to Germany" appears, which is very concrete news and part of crisis communication as it has a direct effect on people's decisions.

At the same time, the entire Polish border saga is an unavoidable natural disaster. Information noise currently characterizes all indrawn European duchies. Different agencies giving out different information that will no longer be valid in just a few hours' time. I feel very sorry for foreign ministry officials who are having a difficult time providing any concrete information in the midst of all the confusion and also cannot just come out and admit that no deal is currently possible with the nerve-wracked Poles.

By now, political communication has likely reached a point where we have an information bubble in which politicians and political journalists are busy mutually regulating the crisis, while the majority of people in Estonia are solving their problems in another information space entirely.

Social media and fake news

People spontaneously exchanging information on social media is the mirror in which all the shortcomings of crisis communication are reflected. The golden rule for communication at this time is that the more purely text-based rhetorical political statements are made, the greater the weight of self-organizing communication pursued by citizens on social media.

We have seen the first waves of fake news get out of hand, which broadly suggests that society has no understanding of Estonia's plan for the emergency situation. People massively sharing information according to which Tallinn would be cut off from the rest of the country on March 16 at 4 p.m. can be seen as a manifestation of both fear and distrust in the authorities.

Government communication has been very reliable in warning people of various measures to take effect in advance, while the fact the rumor spread like wildfire suggests people expect it to be capable of making unexpected decisions.

It is worth remembering that in people's fear fantasies, the government could try to "trap" citizens by creating very difficult situations. The ordinary people who shared the news on social media demonstrated that they do not understand government communication or general crisis regulation.

This is where we need to commend the Government Office's stratcom team that managed to refute the rumors very quickly using several different channels simultaneously.

The lesson to be learned from this is that the rumor might have simply been a test for a malicious gambler before letting far more volatile topics out of the bag. This in turn means that real-time media and social media monitoring needs to be a part of modern crisis communication. (I can assure you that it is.)

During cyberattacks that hit presidential elections in France, analysts found that malicious rumors or information operations usually peaked after 1.5 hours.

Concerning rumors, very banal reasons should also be considered. I heard a version where a recent rumor that Estonia was planning to ban the sale of alcohol was cooked up by people from a company that sells alcohol to repeat a spike in turnover experienced by supermarkets when people recently started buying up toilet paper. In this case, the rumor would have served as a marketing trick to get people to stock up on alcohol before it's too late.

Forecast for the near future

There can be no doubt that the situation will deteriorate over the coming weeks. If during the first week, people are still understanding, frustration will be taking over by the second as no visible signs of triumph can be seen. Frustration adds fuel to the fire of mutual accusations and contributes to acting out at the expense of others.

If in authoritarian countries, crisis regulation depends on people's willingness to follow draconian orders, in a country like Estonia, everything eventually depends on civil society that adapts to valid rules proceeding from common sense. This means that in a way, the key to solving the situation lies in horizontal and constructive communication.

If there is anything I could recommend, it would be social media detox and reduced media consumption in general as it is not likely to produce anything uplifting in the near future. If you want to stay up to date on developments, see ERR news once a day and avoid political statements by ministers.

Glance at Postimees and Delfi, Eesti Päevaleht and Eesti Ekspress, but do not read comments by politicians. That said, read carefully all government decisions, Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and Health Board provisions and recommendations.

Next, only try to corroborate the information with those few wise people who have always been right in the past. No one has more than two to four such acquaintances. Spend the remaining time communicating with your family, reading books, creating new startups, and life will begin again sooner or later.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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