Exclusive: WPP reveals top post-pandemic comms challenges for governments

Government comms teams are under renewed pressure due to the pandemic, with societies left divided and the emergence of ‘listening fatigue’ in relation to health messages, according to a major new report released by WPP today

Government comms needs to tackle the challenges of post-pandemic life, according to the WPP report.
Government comms needs to tackle the challenges of post-pandemic life, according to the WPP report.

The report into what government communicators can learn from the pandemic draws on the work of WPP’s Government & Public Sector practice with more than 70 governments globally. 

“New patterns of behaviour are already emerging that will affect the relationship between citizens and the state, and that government communicators need to be ready to adapt to,” it says, while adding that the pandemic has “created a raft of new pressures which pose additional challenges for government communication".

The report outlines five key challenges for government comms teams:

Societies fracturing 

“In many parts of the world, the pandemic led to a revived sense of national identity that reflected off of the shared effort of conquering COVID-19. This has had both positive and negative implications – boosting morale among some audiences, but exacerbating feelings of exclusion in others.” 

The report claims that “social fabric and social cohesion remain under stress in many communities” and “existing strains in society are starting to re-emerge”.

Governments will need to promote the virtues of greater co-operation with other countries. This will “be a tough sell in financially-straitened times”, but “governments will need to resist reverting to the mantra that charity begins at home", it says.

Behaviours changing

People migrated to virtual worlds during times when freedom of movement was denied. However, the report warns: “There is emerging evidence that 'listening fatigue' is now setting in. Having tired of conforming, citizens are straining against continuing constraints, and tuning out repetitive government messages.”

Governments are developing behaviour-change comms at a time when behaviours and values “remain in a state of flux” and people “are weary of the ongoing requirements of them”.

Trends fluctuating 

A boom in online shopping has had a big impact on a range of industries, including entertainment, healthcare, retail, sport, transportation and travel, according to the report.

It adds: “The majority of public services remain structured for the convenience of the organisation, and not for the service user. Look out for growing pressure on governments to change that.”

And a surge in user generated content online is “riddled with inaccuracies and conspiracy theories that can strongly influence people’s behaviour and the effectiveness of government campaigns”, it says.

Media shifting 

The pandemic has accelerated the switch to digital, with growth in the use of social media, messaging and video services. However, the report cautions: “The more time people spend online, the higher the risks of further societal polarisation. And the more fractured the audience, the more difficult it is for governments to engage them.”

It states that the “pandemic’s biggest media winners were on-demand and streaming content providers”.

The report adds that governments will need to “increase direct communication and direct citizen engagement to connect with audiences – often older, from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds – that haven’t fully embraced the switch to digital.”

Dependencies emerging 

“The pandemic forced a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking – often unwillingly – government support. It required public service providers to treat communication as a more strategic management function.”

The report says: “Communications must be equitable, not equal – some communities need more support than others and should be prioritised accordingly. Governments have a responsibility to reach harder-to-connect-with minority audiences, under-served communities and groups that are more vulnerable and at higher risk.”

It adds: “The integration of policy and communication in many governments remains weak, with too many marketing and campaign interventions failing to adequately link policy objectives with behavioural insights, and thus effect longer-term change."

Next steps

Governments need to have a “clear, consistent and relevant narrative” and a “more integrated model of government communication that can better support and inspire diverse populations through recovery and beyond”.

Building trust between citizens and government, and the integration of strategy and campaign planning, are among the things that comms teams need to address. 

Key areas where government comms teams need to focus on, according to the report
Key areas where government comms teams need to focus on, according to the report

“Citizens will need support during the transition to a post-pandemic state, particularly as what that post-pandemic state looks like is still unknown.”

This means comms needs to make sense to them, and “messages must be framed in a way that instils confidence that government knows what it is doing”, according to the report.

“Governments need to be more alert and responsive to the needs, aspirations and fears of citizens,” it states. 

There is also a need to communicate directly with the public and “bypass traditional media” in a bid to counter disinformation and “diminished levels of trust.”

The report calls for comms budgets to be invested “most heavily in engaging vulnerable communities, and those less likely to proactively seek out information, in a targeted way.

It adds: “By definition that means spending less heavily on mass communication."

Commenting on the issues raised by the report, Sean Howard, chief executive, WPP Government & Public Sector Practice, said: "With public attitudes and behaviours changed forever due to COVID-19, governments have an opportunity to communicate with citizens in new and innovative ways."

"Over the last 15 months, people have turned to governments for life-saving health messages and economic support. Now is the time for government communicators to strengthen the trust built to create more engaged and resilient communities.”

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