The Portuguese government has failed to implement an effective communications strategy during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to confusion and disorientation among the population.
So says a group of communications strategy specialists interviewed by Lusa news agency, who nonetheless believe that the tide may turn now that Prime Minister António Costa has admitted his part of the blame, saying that the “messenger has failed to pass on the message”.
The specialists believe this may have been the government’s first step towards getting the Portuguese people to follow Covid-19 rules and recommendations once again, like they did at the start of the pandemic.
“By admitting his blame, the PM opened a window of opportunity and understanding, as people deal more easily with the truth than with a lack of confidence,” Margarida Pinto da Fonseca, managing director at S Consulting, told Lusa.
António Costa’s latest speech also helped dissipate the tension that was growing between the government and citizens, who were growing tired of seeing the blame of Portugal’s growing number of cases being put solely on their shoulders, according to Rui Gaspar, university professor and psychologist specialising in communication during times of crises.
“People have every right to feel tired, and we should acknowledge their fatigue. Instead of blaming people for relaxing, it is important to listen to them about the barriers they are facing daily in order to follow the behaviours that are being asked of them,” said Gaspar.
He added: “When we include people in our communication, the chances of success and adhesion are larger.”
Andreia Garcia, general manager at health communication consulting company Miligrama, shares the same opinion and said that the government has failed to distinguish “information from communication”.
“During public emergencies like the one we are experiencing, we cannot expect linear communication models which are based on nothing more than passing on information to lead to a change of behaviours. The problem is not a lack of information, but instead the inability to involve the population and listen to them,” Garcia told the news agency.
As she highlighted, authorities have to “identify the priority audiences, the adequate messages for them and the channels that will be used to reach them.”
Another issue is the way that the national health board (DGS) and the government have held joint press conferences during the pandemic, making it hard for citizens to understand the difference between “technical communication and political communication”.
“When the two become indistinguishable, it will always be a problem,” said Rui Gaspar, who also slammed the lack of empathy and understanding that has sometimes been apparent in their press conferences.
“They cannot just provide epidemiological information and numbers, they also have to have an empathetic side and show people that they’re doing things well,” he added.
Perhaps most important is how the government’s constant stream of statistics and information has “numbed” the public perception of the pandemic’s victims.
“When we start to communicate too much in numbers, we stop to see them as people. Thirty, 40 or 50 people stop being people with families, who had their lives and were affected by this situation,” said Gaspar, suggesting that authorities should instead provide some “emotional significance” to the numbers.
Meanwhile, the unity shown at the start of the pandemic which helped Portugal keeps its epidemiological situation under control (and which was even described abroad as the ‘Portuguese miracle’) has started to crumble.
According to Pinto da Fonseca, “each sector of society is growing more and more apart from each other and fighting for its own interests.”
“It would be important to have a kind of consensus between all parts, including a meeting with the media, to understand how together we can continue to promote a message that is becoming hollow,” she said.
The specialists all agree that the government’s blanket statements about the pandemic are no longer effective, and that authorities have to find ways to reach out to different parts of society with different messages.
Said Garcia, family doctors could have an important role transmitting important information to people, especially those in risk groups.
“It is important to understand where people are getting their information from and who they trust. This is a fundamental step,” she said.