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(image: Simon Chesterman)
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PoliticsMay 11, 2020

The epic story of NZ’s communications-led fight against Covid-19

(image: Simon Chesterman)
(image: Simon Chesterman)

Jacinda Ardern, Ashley Bloomfield and thousands of anonymous comms workers just accomplished what we all would have thought impossible just weeks ago. Duncan Greive looks back at the historic lockdown, and how it was achieved.

It came in the early evening of Wednesday March 25 – an angry, violent buzzing, all around the nation. The Spinoff documented the moment in its live updates: “like a demon possessed my phone”, said one staffer, while another noted that “the cat ran straight out of our house”.

What happened was the Civil Defence alert system, mostly reserved for tsunami warnings, had been called up to active duty. Signals were sent to our cellphones which activated their emergency sound and vibrate functionality, to tell us that the level four shutdown was coming at midnight that evening. More than that though, it showed New Zealand was willing to use every communications tool available to let what is normally an unpredictable and unruly populace know that their lives had just changed. It was an early sign the fight against Covid-19 would be fought on more fronts than health alone.

Less than six months earlier, New Zealand was among 195 countries included in the inaugural Global Health Security Index survey of pandemic preparedness, receiving a poor score of 54/100. The No 1 country, receiving 83.5/100, was the US. New Zealand languished in 35th, tied with Hungary and below developing economies like Chile, Estonia and Mexico.

New Zealand’s ranking on the 2019 Global Health Security Index

The report’s authors did not know that it would be given such a visceral test so soon after publication. As is inevitable with models of such scale and complexity, results differed when the projections met reality. Both the GHSI study authors and informed commentary have pointed out that it was judging tools, not how they would be wielded.

Even so, it’s quite a leap New Zealand has made, to go from such a poor assessment of its preparedness to the cusp of elimination. To the point at which cabinet meets today to discuss reopening the country to return to most of our familiar, beloved behaviours, when much of the rest of the world cannot contemplate anything of the sort.

New Zealand had a number of advantages, most obviously its isolation and sea borders. We did some things right, in banning direct flights to China early. Fine weather may have played a part, or our cities being less densely populated, or even a low public transport usage rate. Even the epidemiologists admit that luck probably had something to do with it too.

Yet when this episode is finally over, when humanity returns to whatever passes for normal life on the other side of this, it will be manifestly obvious that the single most powerful contribution to the apparent success of our fight against Covid-19 was communication. What we have witnessed over the past two months has been a communications masterclass – a multifaceted, stunningly effective campaign which unified a nation into complying with unprecedented restrictions with near total obedience.

It utilised a variety of techniques – as ancient as political speech, as modern as hyper-targeted social media advertising – to produce a level of uniform behaviour unimaginable in a western-style democracy. As we count down the hours to today’s announcement, it seems an apt time to look back over this extraordinary period, and contemplate the tools deployed, and what that deployment achieved.

Jacinda Ardern announces the levels system from her Beehive office, March 21 2020. (Photo: pool)

The alert levels and the everywhere campaign

Ironically, given how smoothly so much of what followed would flow, the announcement of the levels system felt rushed. Ardern gave an address only signalled that morning, carried across multiple networks at midday on a sunny Saturday. “I’m speaking directly to all New Zealanders today,” she intoned sombrely from her office, in front of wooden panelling, hanging flags and a portrait of Michael Joseph Savage. It called to mind a wartime address, a style not adopted since.

To be fair, there was a bind – how to give the nation the hint that something huge was coming, without inducing panic? But the timing of it, before we all got used to the daily rhythms of the 1pm briefings, of the state speaking to us, unmediated, meant that relatively few were watching live – just 294,000, according figures from TVNZ, a little less than half the 590,000 who watched last Thursday’s announcement about the new level two restrictions.

Yet the content was masterful. The levels system made intuitive sense – a simple, easily followed shorthand for the country’s status at any given time. It’s striking, listening back to the speech, how much the system has evolved. It was originally conceived to be applied regionally – “you’ll know if the status in your area has gone up, or down, or stayed the same” – but never has been. All the levels imagined an escalating threat, and make no reference to the de-escalation which has been the norm for most of the lockdown.

The system seems to have been conceptually borrowed from Singapore, part of a pragmatic willingness to pluck best-practice from anywhere, which contrasts sharply with some more nationalist approaches, such as the US CDC’s bungled attempts to make its own test rather than use the WHO’s perfectly adequate one. That the rules of individual levels have often changed now seems a feature, not a bug – the system has flourished in that opacity. From March 21 on, we all knew what the level was, the detail could follow later. Even the fact that the legal basis for the lockdown remains the subject of debate is now in many ways immaterial – the vast majority of New Zealanders did what was required of them voluntarily, because the communication device of the levels system made the expected behaviour clear.

What followed was arguably more impressive. Within days we started to see yellow and white stripes everywhere.

Street posters in Morningside in late March (photo: Duncan Greive)

It was a masterpiece of utilitarian design. The messaging straight from science fiction, yet the rounded off edges of the typeface blunted its impact. The initial slogan was “stay home, save lives”, which made the simple act of sitting on your couch akin to joining the war effort. The yellow wasn’t the harsh, blaring hi-vis tone of police tape, but something more yolky. That was no accident, and its integrity was defended – many co-opted it for their own Covid-19 messaging, including one major national publisher. They were surprised to receive a call asking that they correct to the right pantone.

Yet even the most basic information about who was behind the campaign has proven hard to come by. I wanted to write about it, and tracked someone down in late March. “I would, but can’t … I’m NDA-d up to my ears,” he wrote. It’s rare for government and agencies to be so unwilling to take even a glancing public credit for high profile and admired work, and the reticence was instructive about the seriousness with which most branches of the state seemed to take to this task.

It became the most ubiquitous campaign in memory – everywhere from television banners, to billboards, to online pre-rolls, to print. It even played on the otherwise ad-free RNZ, under lifeline utility provisions. “The biggest media spend in the history of New Zealand advertising,” as assessed by one informed observer. For a couple of weeks there, it was the main client in our suddenly empty newspapers, a financial lifeline for a media suddenly both vitally important and mortally imperilled. It was a campaign no one who lived through it will forget. The reach, the clarity and the consistency of message were all hallmarks of what was to come.

Ashley Bloomfield and the return of experts

Headline during peak Bloomfield on the Slate website (image: Simon Chesterman)

The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, became a bookish sex symbol of sorts. Previously anonymous, he was thrust into prominence through briefing the nation each day at 1pm, in a series of two-handers with Ardern that became phenomenally high-rating spectacles. Bloomfield had a kind of anti-style, an unprepossessing, purposeful figure whose command of the relevant facts was such that where his version of reality differed from that of his own frontline healthcare workers – as with the widespread availability of flu jabs or PPE – he tended to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Much of Bloomfield’s appeal stemmed from a strong sense that ego is not nearly so powerful a motivating factor for him as duty. His job required him to become public facing, to make Facebook Live appearances, to field multiple variations of the same question so that the 6pm bulletins could be made. None of this was core to his work prior, but the role now required it, so he would abide.

This went for a large number of experts across multiple fields. Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, epidemiologists David Skegg and Michael Baker, and infectious diseases specialist Ayesha Verrall all had periods during which they felt inescapable. As a friend put it to me, “experts are back”. It felt that way – that after years of engagement being the core amplifier in the social media era, we clung to PhDs for safety during the pandemic.

This was not uncomplicated. People who disliked the advice of more prominent experts sought out their own, and the fact that the virus danced merry havoc across multiple domains – from the impact of different types of stimulus to contact tracing capacity – meant that no single expert could ever come close to complete command of the whole situation. Though that didn’t prevent some experts and even more non-experts trying.

Bloomfield was the most prominent expression of another maligned type – the bureaucrat. For decades a popular hobby of certain parties has been to run the public service down, both rhetorically and by starving it of funds. Yet the likes of Bloomfield, representing a health system which largely performed admirably (while still screaming for reform), freshly minted head cop Andrew Coster and director of public health Caroline McElnay all gave face and grave personality to the monolith of state, each in their own way explaining why global trust in government has rocketed up 11 points in just four months, according to Edelman’s enormous trust survey.

(Image: Edelman)

The invisible apparatus

Despite the performance of those figures that fronted the media throughout the lockdown, their work has been built on the backs of thousands of others throughout New Zealand’s now-enormous communications-industrial complex. This is not to understate the skill of the likes of Ardern and Bloomfield, each a world-class crisis communicator. Yet it is not shading either to point out that our trust in their pronouncements is built on the kind of subject area command knowledge which can only come from an extraordinary apparatus, flowing out in concentric rings from the pair to the nation.

Around them perch advisors, researchers, speech-writers, press secretaries and pollsters. The repetition of phrases like a “team of five million”, “act as though you already have Covid-19” and “go hard, go early” is not just because Ardern woke up one morning and quite liked them. It’s because they have been run through focus groups to ensure that there is no gap between the intention of the words and how they land. To some that kind of testing of message is what they despise about politics. That’s fine, but it’s very difficult to convince five million people to all make their lives much worse, and many to lose their jobs, without some form of insurrection. It’s likely only by testing such messages that such a remarkable degree of social compliance was attainable.

Beyond the inner circle innumerable decisions needed to be made, and masses of information created, cross-checked and distributed, from multiple agencies with scant history of co-operating. This is the hidden comms army, the one journalists often rail against, as it swells and their numbers fall. All were earning their money through the lockdown.

They work at an acronym-fest – MBIE and MSD and MoH and MoE and many more, all making decisions under awful pressure, then cascaded down through public and private sector channels to provide the fine detail of what was functionally a temporary revolution. Inevitably not all those decisions were justified, and episodes like a voluntary return to school or the closure of magazines and community newspapers brought varying degrees of trauma.

It wasn’t just government communications. In parts of the country Māori concerned for their isolated communities commenced checkpoints to protect vulnerable populations – an example of pragmatic on-the-ground communication. This set off a chain reaction, with decisions needed to be made about the posture of the political response, and how police would manage what was characterised by some as running contra to their authority.

Yet throughout, the public and private sector communications channels – everyone from lobbyists to industry bodies to unions to iwi to email database holders – helped triage (another suddenly popular word) through the confusion. Despite near-constant small tweaks to what was allowed, there remained a general sense of solidity to the levels superstructure.

The comms New Zealand didn’t want under lockdown

The aftermath of a Facebook post gone wrong (image: Simon Chesterman)

During lockdown, there were few elements of our society which didn’t see their roles change. For some, it revealed something we should have known all along – that supermarket workers are essential, for example. Yet there were others which seemed to radically shift because of the gravity of both the moment, and the communications infrastructure deployed.

Perhaps most impacted of all was the political opposition to the government. There would be few democracies around the world which saw a greater degree of political unity than New Zealand’s, with Simon Bridges and National largely accepting that parliament could not continue as normal. In its place came the online Epidemic Response Committee, a reasonable stand-in for it as a check on the massive functional power wielded by the government, and Ardern in particular. The ERC largely went about its business, and despite some strange missteps – most notably a continuing lack of Māori health representation – most observers thought it performed its task creditably.

Yet the level of trust in Ardern and the government had a strange corollary, in that anyone who dared question its decisions was often savaged. This culminated in a Facebook post which became national news for its engagement ratio. And while Bridges sometimes misread the room, the level of venom expressed toward him for simply doing his job was enormous. It even seemed to impact his treatment in the media at times, with the contrast between the questioning of the prime minister and leader of the opposition on RNZ’s flagship Morning Report particularly stark during the week of April 20.

Some of this comes down to the respective styles of the two hosts, and the way Bridges struggled to establish a consistent position throughout the crisis. But in recent times it felt like no one in New Zealand wanted to hear anything at all from him.

Bridges was hardly alone in being shunned by the public, however. As health minister, David Clark should have been central to this crisis, yet he has barely been seen after being reprimanded for repeatedly breaching the rules of the level four lockdown. The deputy prime minister popped up with a picture of himself fishing off his lawn – likely within the rules, but certainly an unpleasant brag to those trapped in overcrowded homes with multiple generations under one roof.

The media at times got caught in the crossfire too. The 1pm briefings became widely-watched public spectacles, both because of the emotional sway the number of positive cases had over us all, and because they became a combination of live show and sport for many of us, replacing popular entertainment banned under the lockdown. It meant that the briefings – functionally similar to a post-cabinet press conference – had the daily audience of an All Blacks test. So the act of creating the news was as popular as the news itself, and brought torrents of online abuse, the weight of which is captured brilliantly in Kelly Dennett’s profile of Tova O’Brien.

It has been a strange period for media – critical communications infrastructure which did an outstanding job of covering the crisis, even as its foundations were being bombed by the lockdown. It brought long hours, business failures, redundancies and pay cuts, along with fury from certain segments of a stressed out public that was paying more attention to its work than ever before. Media has done this job despite normal access to government being drastically and very deliberately curtailed, as revealed in Friday’s leaked memo to accompany the huge afternoon data drop.

It said that no ministers were to be interviewed on the drop’s contents, as “there’s no real need to defend because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Govt is doing. Instead we can dismiss.” At once accurate and deeply cynical about the fundamental role of journalism. Gallery journalist Derek Cheng wrote a searing opinion piece for the Herald which captured he and his colleagues’ frustration at this attitude, concluding that “if they can’t be trusted to answer questions about their portfolios, they shouldn’t be ministers.”

For institutions like the media and opposition, whose role is to ask questions of the government, the antipathy was bruising. They were simply doing their jobs, and must hope that level two might mean that simple act is less controversial – that we fast revert to more normal rules of engagement, particularly with a looming election campaign.

Jacinda Ardern, the world’s most able crisis communicator

The Atlantic was one of a number of international outlets to shower Ardern with praise (Image: Simon Chesterman)

Despite the rise of Bloomfield, and the cast of thousands who made this collective communications masterclass happen, it is all unimaginable without the very specific qualities of Jacinda Ardern. “[She] doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them,” former prime minister Helen Clark told The Atlantic in an admiring story. Ardern is often compared to Clark, but the comparison feels reductive. Clark had steel to her which was palpable at all times. Ardern possesses it, too, but prefers to keep it sheathed in public. Her skills are more located in persuasion than command. She leads by making herself one with the crowd, rather than standing above it.

Like Bloomfield, her performances throughout this period have felt egoless. That is, of course, impossible – no politician has ever been elected without believing they could do better than whoever currently occupies the office they seek. And certainly no leader. But it takes a particular mastery of tone to never let the scale of the moment, nor her role in it, seem any more important than that played by a police officer, nurse or supermarket worker.

It’s one small but vital element of the array of tools she has deployed of late to talk a whole country into willingly abandoning the freedoms it loves and has fought for. She practised expectation management superbly, consistently warning in the early days that case numbers would get worse, and that the dates for cabinet to assess lowering levels did not mean they would lower on that date. There has been none of the scapegoating common in some world leaders – whether of predecessors’ planning, China’s reaction, the WHO’s response or any other “other”.

Even when Bridges drove from Tauranga to Wellington to make Zoom parliament seem more official, she resisted the temptation to judge him, helping cement the civility which mostly defined this period politically.

She has been ubiquitous throughout lockdown, appearing at the majority of the briefings, and supplementing those with radio and television interviews, as well as hosting lockdown conversations with other New Zealanders, and conducting a large number of her signature Facebook live appearances. Each is calibrated to hit a different audience, with different expectations, and while they will all work to her immense political advantage come September – there is no politician with anything like her prominence – all have the air cover of being necessary to maintain such rigid behaviour among the population.

The prime minister has made regular appearances on Facebook Live throughout lockdown. (image: Tina Tiller)

For all the so-called soft media streamed on Facebook, nothing has been so scrutinised as the briefings themselves. Thursday’s was a classic of this new genre, exploiting the immense national interest in what the new level two would look like. Ardern structured it adroitly, re-emphasising physical distance and hand-washing first, with information about schools and sports saved until the end. Both the mode and message were a vast improvement on the levels announcement six weeks earlier. Which is to say that through the crisis, she has not just shown her skills, but markedly improved them.

Her performance was matched, however, by a void where the rest of her ministers might have been (with the exception of the very able Grant Robertson, the only one consistently visible throughout). To some it seems sinister, to others, simply the most competent person being given the ball throughout.

Was it worth it?

All this has increasingly been absorbed internationally, with a recent Stickybeak survey of the global PR industry ranking New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 the world’s best. That is of real value to New Zealand – just as John Key’s golf-buddy relationship with Obama had diplomatic and national brand consequences, so Ardern coming to be known as the world’s greatest crisis leader burnishes New Zealand’s global standing and soft power.

Of course, none of this means the government was right to do what it did. We are months, probably years, away from being able to make any kind of informed judgement on that. It certainly feels right to many of us at the moment, and surveys The Spinoff conducted with Stickybeak throughout showed an already sky high level of support actually rising as the lockdown wore on.

That said, only time will prove whether it actually was right to pursue this strategy. Perhaps Australia will eliminate with a far lower economic cost. Perhaps Sweden will be proven right by a vaccine stubbornly refusing to emerge. Perhaps the communications powerhouse which brought us to this point will find it hard to give up the level of control and command, leading to the kind of rancorous partisan polarisation which has eaten away at the likes of the US and UK.

As of now, most questions remain open.

What we can judge is what the government set out to do and what it actually achieved. Across the 51 days from the levels announcement on March 21 to today’s cabinet meeting, New Zealand willingly submitted to an unprecedented collective restraint. This was not merely a rational response to a once-in-a-lifetime threat, but because an enormous communications apparatus, from the prime minister on down, was deployed to achieve that very specific end. On that score – the gap between the behaviour desired and the behaviour achieved – we have just witnessed a modern masterpiece of mass communication.

How highly you grade the achievement largely depends on the value you place on the subject. Communication is frequently seen as politically helpful but not vital. It can be unpleasantly characterised as a feminine and therefore lower ranking ability. That Ardern’s degree is in the subject has tended to be wrapped up in the initial framing of her as a lightweight. Political leaders are often lauded for their charisma, their wit, their intellect, their will. Jacinda Ardern possesses those qualities too, obviously. But the way she communicates is simply different to her predecessors, and events have conspired, often tragically, for her to lean on that strength more often than she would have anticipated.

Her powers of communication are so vast that they seem to have overcome a deadly virus for which a massive global survey judged New Zealand extremely ill-prepared. Leadership and trust was one element not included in the GHSI study, but has proven the most important element of those which New Zealand could control. Its authors weren’t blind to it. “Effective political leadership that instills confidence in the government’s response is crucial,” they wrote. On that point, our collective behaviour says the government succeeded beyond what we might ever have thought possible.

Today, as we anticipate a return to something like normal life, a second question will hang in the air at that cabinet meeting. Of whether level two will see the tight control of government communications relax too. Or whether it is another sphere of our lives permanently changed by this crisis.

Keep going!