GoI shows the way in successful communication during COVID-19 pandemic
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has lauded the efforts made by the Indian Government in dealing with the Coronavirus crisis. Even as the number of Covid-19 cases in the country are poised to touch 500, all states and Union Territories have been put under lockdown. Media reports, quoted WHO Executive Director Michael J Ryan as saying that India has a tremendous capacity to handle the Covid-19 crisis, given the fact that the country has earlier been successful in eradicating two pandemics – small-pox and polio.
Since early March 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has been gradually escalating communications and spends on advisories pertaining to the Covid-19 outbreak. By the time, WHO had declared it to be a global pandemic on March 11, the Government of India had already initiated an awareness campaign allowing the citizens of India access to the latest news and updates on Coronavirus and be able to protect themselves.
During the first phase of the awareness campaign, the Government collaborated with telco operators Jio, Airtel and Vodafone to replace the precall ringtones of users with a default ringtone which was an advisory on Covid-19. The ringtone begins with a disturbing coughing sound, which also led to some social media chatter praising the Government’s initiative.
Subsequently, The Times of India (12th March, Mumbai edition), Hindustan Times (12th March, Delhi edition), Deccan Herald (12th March, Bengaluru edition), and Indian Express (12th March, Pune edition) carried either state or central government advisory on Covid-19. On March 10, India had reported its first casualty from the virus in Karnataka.
On March 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the nation's attention with his first speech on the threat of Covid-19. He requested citizens to maintain order, avoid overcrowding hospitals, minimise travel unless absolutely necessary and initiate a self-imposed or Janta Curfew on Sunday, March 22.
Until then, most of the government communication had come through the mass media via television and newspapers, and statutory mentions in AIR and Doordarshan.
“Despite the clout of AIR and DD, in the age of private news channels and FM, urban India has been rallied around mostly by private news channels and government advertising in newspapers,” observes Dilip Cherian, Founder & Managing Partner, Perfect Relations.
Cherian adds, “Clearly all communications so far have been totally superseded by the Prime Minister’s broadcast on Thursday night. It’s the definitive governmental message which laid out the outline of a short term public behavioural change and the plan (yet to be defined) of an economic package in the offering. The big rehearsal for Janta Curfew was the focus on the “war” metaphor indicating that more was on the way.”
At the central government level, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare advertised on TV, print and digital mediums to raise awareness on the virus. At the state levels, COVID-19 announcements and campaigns have been promptly deployed by the Maharashtra State Government and Delhi Government leveraging print and OOH mediums.
Advisories have been issued by various institutions of public service. In Maharashtra, the Public Health Department, Maharashtra State, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), and Mumbai Police.
In Delhi, the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of NCT of Delhi, Committee on Peace and Harmony, Delhi Legislative Assembly, and Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.
The address by PM Modi galvanised the government into action and till date Print, Radio, Digital, Mobile, OOH and TV have been leveraged as part of the 360 degree awareness campaign.
According to Shan Jain, Chief Strategy Officer, Madison Media, “While on most of the media, the messaging has been spread through editorial support, the expanse of media spends from the central government and state governments is estimated to be anything in the range of Rs 100-150 crores till now.”
Jain’s estimation comprises both central and state governments spending on media. Here’s a breakdown of estimated government spending across the media.
It is important to note that these figures are merely estimates and in some cases like the government’s collaboration with telcos could be pro bono.
Jain states, “Although Government’s messaging and efforts were there on-ground but the message from the PM which was covered across the media spectrum could have been the biggest step in making people aware about the gravity of the situation which was not the case earlier.”
It is difficult to put an estimate on TV and digital spending as the pandemic has received a lot of earned media coverage.
Jain believes that the government has spared no expense for the awareness campaign. She says, “There are about 60-70 million phone connections. Normally, to insert a ringtone ad takes up to Rs 1 per call. That itself is a big buzz. The government would definitely have leveraged all Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) authorized newspapers at least once. There is also an OOH and radio presence in virus affected cities.”
Despite the best efforts of the government the virus has spread to 23 states. If the government communications have to be sustained for a prolonged period nationwide then it could be looking at spending a significant amount in the coming months.
“By now all the factual details of the pandemic have already been communicated”, says Jain. She opines that It would be best for the government to leverage print media tactically to announce new information that has come to light on the virus. “The trend that we are observing as far as media is concerned is wherever there is organic coverage like on TV and digital, the government is relying on editorial support.”
She adds, “The government will rely heavily on print as it is the most credible media”.
Meanwhile reports are pouring in concerning consumer fears that newspapers might be a medium for the transmission of the virus. To allay these fears, publishers have released videos showing them spraying newspapers with disinfectant.
However, some publishers have already announced that their publications will temporarily cease operation in select cities(Mumbai, Guwahati) until March 31st. Media reports suggest that publishers are in talks with the government to verify if newspapers can indeed transmit the virus.
Role of Communications
As of filing this report, the Ministry of Health and Welfare website reports 9 dead, 446 infected and 36 cured/discharged. On going government communications will be essential in letting the people know whether there is a cure to the virus and guide infected citizens to the authorized healthcare facility. Ultimately, it will be up to the government to let the people know that the situation whether has come under control.
Cherian explains, “The role of communications is to spread Awareness, Acceptance and Action – the three A’s of communication. Communications is about creating awareness about not just the disease but also its preventive measures. At Perfect Relations, we’ve seen these three steps at play whether it’s for Polio Programmes or for Swine Flu programmes.”
He further says, “At another level, Acceptance is about getting people to come together on a common platform to ensure there is a unified direction to take. For example, it may mean some sacrifices in terms of lifestyle changes, workplace changes (we at Dentsu have implemented an immediate work-from-home policy for our employees), social distancing difficulties, losing business due to a lockdown etc. Communication is critical to getting people to adapt to any new circumstance. Finally, there are things to be done and measures to be taken that the government is doing, as well as asking people to conform to those actions. It’s about talking-up the role of a good citizen and goading him or her to undertake actions that help society to cope better. Most importantly, well designed and expertly crafted communication alone can help dispelling misinformation which is extremely critical in situations like these.”