Tag Archives: COVID-19

What The COVID-19 Pandemic Really Needs – A Communicator

17 May

     Yes, the world needs a vaccine.  But until scientists create one, we need communicators too.  

      In times of crisis, leadership of course matters.  But so do words.  In a fast moving multi-channel, multi-platform world where communication networks are no longer linear and centralized, finding authentic voices to coalesce around a unifying message has never been more difficult or important.   Our elected leaders command a bully pulpit that gives them not just great opportunities to lead with their words, but equally great responsibility.  It’s one thing to hold daily news conferences, it’s quite another to persuade, inspire, and drive attitudes.

       Ultimately, historians will judge whether our leaders such as President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and many of our state governors have risen to this high mantel.  But one leading epidemiologist believes that on a national level, no one has—yet.  Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota along with three other academic colleagues recently released a paper projecting three scenarios for the progression of the COVID-19 virus.  The scenario that they believe government and healthcare leaders need to prepare for is a second, more powerful wave of the virus to emerge in the fall.  And Osterholm believes there is a national vacuum of urgency.

       “Generally, I think our leaders at the state level are doing an incredible job, as have most of the governors across the country,” said Osterholm when I spoke with him.

       But on a national level, Osterholm is looking for a voice from the past to come forward to the future.  “What I’m looking for is an FDR for a fire side chat.  Or, a Winston Churchill. There are going to be some really tough days ahead, and we need to be brining people together instead of splitting them apart.”

 

       In one important aspect, part of Osterholm’s wish is granted, although not in America.  It’s a voice that represents the past and the present—Queen Elizabeth II.  In her April 5th speech to the United Kingdom, the queen represented the pinnacle of Aristotelian persuasion.  She embodied ethos, or credible and ethical appeal.  The queen in her own properly stoic English way projects pathos, or emotional appeal based upon her experience in the Royal Family during some of Britain’s darkest hours.  And finally, she exhibited logos, or logical appeal to reinforce her message of resilience.   She did it all in just four and a half minutes.

       The queen proves long held communication theory that the messenger enhances the message.  This is precisely what Aristotle meant by his term ethos.  Yale psychologist Carl Hovland called it a source effect.  Hovland and his academic colleagues led research in the 1950’s that would become known as the Yale Studies of persuasion.  They determined that the source effect—or messenger—be it a celebrity, expert, or person of authority was among the four essential effects for a cognitive learning process that led to changing attitudes.  In the queen’s case, one could argue she is a celebrity, expert, and authority figure wrapped in one.  And because she is a beloved figure with an 81% approval rating in the U.K., her message is looked upon with more reverence and credibility than perhaps a similar message from a polarizing figure such as President Trump who struggles to maintain at best a 50% approval rating.

     But part of what makes the queen’s address so powerful is what Hovland would call the message effect.   Her words are deliberate in how they warn of darker times to come, yet reassuring that as a country Britain is up to the fight like so many it has faced in the past.   She also steals rhetorical tricks from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Lennon.  Her use of polyptonton—repeated words—and periodic sentence structure cements the message in the mind.

 “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

                The repeated words, ‘we will,’ and ‘again’ are a rallying cry.  They stick to the brain.  She stole it from Churchill who so strongly used his own polyptonton in 1940:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

       To this day many believe Churchill was talking about the allied invasion of Europe.  In reality, he was talking about a German invasion of Britain.  Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth is rallying the country against the invasion of a virus.  Part of the enormous gravity in both passages is the periodic sentence structure that saves the most powerful verbs until the very end: meet again; never surrender.

       There has also been another voice.  This one comes from the not so distant past—President George W. Bush.

      President Bush’s message is also a call to action.  “We all need to do our part,” said the former president. 

     To be sure, President Bush was a leader who sometimes struggled as an orator.  He often made light of himself as someone who mangled the English language.  But his sincerity and empathy were rarely ever in doubt and that was in full display here, too.

     “Let us remember that empathy and simple compassion are powerful tools in our national recovery,” said Bush.  “We rise and fall together.  And we are determined to rise.”

     This too, Aristotle and Hovland would argue makes the messenger and the message incredibly powerful.

     Dr. Osterholm is right.  We need a national voice.  Not just a voice from the past, we need them from the present. 

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The Best PSA on Social Distancing – Ohio’s Little Power(ful) Ball

12 Apr

    For the past three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors, epidemiologists and government leaders across the globe have tried to preach the necessity of social distancing.  The State of Ohio just did it in thirty seconds.

    The Ohio Department of Health and Dayton marketing agency Real Art are using a ping-pong ball and mousetraps to send a striking message about how this virus spreads and the effectiveness of staying apart and flattening the infection curve.

    The brilliance of the message is its simplicity.  Persuasive public communication and advertising is always most effective when it uses strong metaphors in human form, or to represent human activity.  In this case the single ball represents a single infected person setting off the jaws of contagion in crowded spaces.  In contrast, is also shows how proper spacing allows that same infected person to pass through without any damaging contact.

    But the simple before-and-after illustration is also a powerful teaching tool in the Theory of Trying.  Consumer behavior researchers Richard Bagozzi and Paul Warsaw developed the theory to show how intentions don’t always lead to a specific action.  In some cases, there is a goal evaluation based upon the risk of failure.  In the case of social distancing, the Ohio public service announcement clearly frames its argument both in terms of loss and gain.   In tight quarters it illustrates the consequences of failing to social distance balanced against the possibilities of success.   The framing primes one’s attitude toward trying to social distance and hopefully leads to a decision and action.

    Playing in parallel with the Theory of Trying in this PSA is Prospect Theory.  The well-established and utilized theory by Daniel Kahneman is essentially an economics theory that holds people are motivated more by a potential loss than by the possibility of a gain.  It won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002 and has been the cornerstone of many successful political campaigns from Lynden Johnson to Donald Trump.  For better or worse, Trump masterfully used Prospect Theory in his 2016 presidential campaign to steer attitudes and votes based upon perceived losses to America from immigration, trade, and crime.  Likewise, President Johnson used Prospect Theory in his famous “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

    The simple ad showed a girl pulling the petals off a daisy that morphed into the countdown of a nuclear explosion.  The implied message was that Goldwater would lead to nuclear war.  The ad was so strong it only aired once.  Johnson won in a landslide.  In the Ohio ping-pong ball PSA, the loss is framed in terms of easily spreading the virus and getting stung by the traps.

    But the chief power of the Ohio flatten the curve campaign is its metaphoric simplicity.  Who knew a little ball could tell such a strong story.  The Ohio Department of Health did—it’s their own little Power Ball.

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