THE PTI government is struggling with its message on Covid-19. It does not have to. Here are 10 ways to get it right.
1) Be clear on what the message is. More than three months into the crisis, the message is: ‘lockdown is bad’. This is a bad message to have for two reasons, (a) it is negative, solution-abhorrent and relays the passive approach of what the government cannot do instead of the active what it can do; (b) it is almost irrelevant because the solutions needed at this time have moved on to advanced variables, and therefore when PTI officials at all levels remain stuck on the issue of lockdown they appear out of touch and out of depth. The key question today is: at a time when Covid-19 is spreading exponentially and creating its own momentum of national discourse and depression, what should the PTI government’s message be?
2) Be disciplined on the message. The combination of an unclear message and undisciplined messengers is deadly. The PTI is making itself endure a potpourri of colourful personalities whose verbal skills often outpace their cognitive ones. It is quite feasible that in a span of 24 hours one spokesman would be urging SOPs while another would be violating them; one minister would be urging the need for masks while another would be having himself photographed without one; one federal person would be imploring citizens to take Covid-19 seriously while a provincial elector would be dismissing it as a ‘C’ category virus that does not do much harm. Such messengers are further diluting an already mixed dose of messaging.
Do not just shrug your shoulders and leave everything to the citizens.
3) Educate the citizens on Covid-19. Every government official is talking about SOPs and yet complaining people are not following them. Why? The failure of an effective mass awareness campaign remains one of the biggest misses since Covid-19 hit Pakistan. In an age of sophisticated marketing aimed at influencing hearts and minds, the government has resorted to insipid public service messaging reminding people to wash hands. Covid-19 has moved beyond that stage. So have strategies of smart governments that are learning every day from the experiences of the world. A massive multi-platform aggressive awareness campaign is still relevant at a time when the infection is exploding and scores of citizens are refusing to get tested because somehow they have come to believe something bad will happen to them in hospital. The awesome power of audio-visual production can never be substituted by rambling press conferences.
4) Be solution-oriented. Ever since March, the government has been unrolling a policy of ‘net-negatives’ that are weaved into a narrative of inability and incapacity. Says the government: we cannot do the lockdown because we are not rich and we do not have resources to feed our poor and we do not have the data for them because we have not registered them and therefore we cannot reach them and we cannot sustain them for longer periods and cannot give them bailouts. Count the ‘nots’ in this sentence. Citizen demand action from their governments, not justifications for their helplessness. The government continues to project a mega-narrative of overt and subliminal helplessness when it insinuates that it has eased the lockdown and exposed citizens to the virus not because that’s the right thing to do but because it cannot sustain their economic plight.
5) Elaborate on solutions that make sense. What are the solutions now? Break it down into two categories; (a) what the government must do, (b) what the citizens must do. Start with explaining the solutions and explain the mechanics. Smart lockdown? Explain the concept and implementation so citizens know it is actually an operational strategy and not a jargonised attempt to show activity. TTQ? Explain the details of how people are traced, tested and quarantined. Explain whether every infected person’s contacts are traced and if so, how this is managed. Explain how the health system’s capacity is far in excess of the load so far. If so, why are there constant reports of hospitals full? Don’t just explain — show. Show the empty beds and vacant critical care wards and unused ventilators. Explain, explain, explain. Do not substitute effective relaying of contextualised and illustrative information with unfocused and boring press briefings. Tell citizens this is how the government will defeat Covid-19. Then ask them to do their part. Do not just shrug your shoulders and leave everything to the citizens.
6) Stop losing the battle of optics: Weeks of persuasion by the government to make people wear masks may have been undone by one photograph: Prime Minister Imran Khan arriving at the ISI headquarters and not wearing a mask while everyone with him in the photo, including Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa and DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed are wearing theirs. Optics must gel with policy. Period.
7) The prime minister should play the captain’s inning. If the prime minister is indeed the communicator-in-chief, he should consider two things; (a) speak frugally and stay on the positive message. He should delete the word ‘lockdown’ from his vocabulary and move on to a messaging that inspires hope, confidence and resolve; (b) carry this message of hope and resolve to the people — visit hospitals and quarantine centres in all provincial capitals and be seen as the captain who is leading from the front.
8) Get some people off-air. There is a time and place for everything — and everyone. Now is neither the time, nor the place and definitely not the issue for people like Governor Sindh Imran Ismail, MPA Khurram Sher Zaman and a few others to be on the media. One says lockdown is a ‘fashion’ while the other breaks down the infection into categories as yet unknown to mankind. Spare us.
9) Find nuance. It’s a friend.
10) Remember at all times: The PTI will be judged on Covid-19. Forever.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2020