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Jacinda Ardern with a print-out of the Spinoff ‘Flatten the Curve’ visual(Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern with a print-out of the Spinoff ‘Flatten the Curve’ visual(Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

PoliticsMay 6, 2020

NZ ranked first in world for Covid-19 response communications

Jacinda Ardern with a print-out of the Spinoff ‘Flatten the Curve’ visual(Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern with a print-out of the Spinoff ‘Flatten the Curve’ visual(Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

A global survey of the public relations industry puts the Ardern government top of the pile.

As New Zealand records its second consecutive day of zero new cases of Covid-19, moving cautiously closer towards the goal of “elimination”, the government has received another international plaudit for the response – this time from public relations practitioners.

A survey by Stickybeak for the industry news site Provoke found that New Zealand was selected more than any other country as the most impressive response to the virus. It received just over 20% of votes among the 289 respondents in the PR industry, ahead of Germany on 16.5% and Singapore on 9%. The next most common answer, on 5%, was “none”.

At the bottom of the pile was the United States, which received less than 3% of votes. Worse than that, when PR professionals were asked which government’s communications efforts they were least impressed by, the US was way out in front, with 60% of respondents agreeing it was the most disappointing effort. Next in line was Britain on 12% and China, where the virus originated, on 7%.

According to Provoke, 31% of respondents were from North America, 24% from Asia, 20% from Europe and 12% from the UK.

Asked what was the “most credible source of information”, “independent scientific commentary” topped the list, with more than 28% selecting it in the top three. Government information followed on 22%, just ahead of domestic mainstream media on 21% and foreign media on 15%.

Communications was integral to effective national responses to the pandemic, said David Brain, a former regional boss of PR giant Edelman and co-founder of the survey company Stickybeak.

“Having the right policy is a great first step of course, but if you cannot carry the country and get understanding and compliance it just won’t work,” he said.

“Much of that is to do with Jacinda Ardern’s personal style and empathy and the calm and rational presentations of Dr Ashley Bloomfield, but it also takes a great communications team. The daily detailed briefings were exactly the right thing to do.”

The alert level system, laid out in a rare national address from the prime minister’s office, had proved an important part of the strategy, said Brain.

“The early setting out of the four alert levels, linked to the progress of the virus and the restrictions that each level would entail, set expectations at the beginning and have given people a framework for thinking about how their futures might look and feel. Very few countries have done that, which is one of the reasons why other governments have found it so much harder to manage expectations and get and maintain compliance to restrictions,” he said.

“She has speechwriters who have helped her find the right tone and simplicity of message and strategists who have tested the best ways to present the dilemma we face and the joint actions that are required to combat it.  That is advanced leadership and government.”

Within New Zealand, the sentiment has proved overwhelmingly supportive. In polling by Stickybeak for The Spinoff, published last week, the government response was judged to be “excellent” or “good” by 86% of people.

The survey result follows a series of glowing headlines, among them a New York Times editorial which praised Ardern as delivering a “masterclass on how to respond” and effusive columns in the Financial Times and The Atlantic. Alastair Campbell, former press secretary for the UK prime minister Tony Blair, credited Ardern with delivering a “masterclass in crisis communications” in an article for The Independent.

The praise is not universal, however. A Wall Street Journal article on the weekend suggested that New Zealand’s strict lockdown measures meant that it would endure a greater economic blow than Australia, which has also throttled new cases but with less stringent measures. Ardern disputed the account in an interview with Newstalk ZB yesterday.

There have been criticisms, too, of the wider communications response in New Zealand. Newshub journalist Michael Morrah said that the Ministry of Health had fallen short on providing “swift, precise information”. He wrote: “We need this to inform the public. However, getting clear, timely answers to questions has frequently been an arduous and deeply frustrating process.”

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