2020: A Year of Communicating COVIDly
Image Credit - "President Cyril Ramaphosa sees off Coronavirus COVID-19 quarantined citizens from The Ranch Resort" by GovernmentZA, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Among the many legacies of the last 12 months is to have morphed the connotations of the double-20 from a positive—perfect visual acuity—to a calendar year best seen from a rear-view mirror, if at all. From a communicator’s perspective, what we shared through the torrent of media about and around the pandemic reveals reams about who we are and what we value in our cultures at this eyeblink in time. Without attempting to be exhaustive (or heaven forbid, exhausting), here’s a sample of that as seen from our School of Communication and Culture here at Royal Roads.
Certainly, the onset and wavy omniscience of COVID-19 permeated both the content and form of public and private communications in 2020. The need to share information and make meaning in a pandemic reminded us of the core principles of crisis communication: become the first source of information, be accurate, be honest and credible, be empathetic, encourage specific action, and show respect for a public in crisis. Across the globe, casualty rates were shaped not only by the resources that public authorities devoted to responding to the crisis but also by how they chose to communicate about it (e.g., from lauded, preemptive measures in New Zealand, South Korea, and Canada’s ‘Atlantic Bubble’ to passive aggression and denialism in Brazil, Russia, and the USA). COVID-19 has also become a political issue: even the act of wearing a mask during a public-health emergency has raised issues of how we construct and challenge identities, attitudes, and values —our own and those of others.
Yet COVID wasn’t the only crisis to permeate our public discourse in 2020.
The unprecedented and ongoing environmental threats to the Earth’s ecosystems evidently don’t stop for pandemics, and the need to communicate about these threats and inspire action to counter them remains massive and urgent. For example, how we value and position or ‘frame’ what’s happening to the climate in our communication—whether as ‘change’, ‘crisis’ or otherwise—can have a major impact on how we act on it, and 2020 saw a perceptible shift, at least in domestic news media, towards addressing this particular issue as the emergency that many have long been saying that it is.
Another immense issue of societal concern is humanity’s age-old struggle simply to get along, particularly in the face of our collective kaleidoscope of races, cultures, nationalities, and sports-team preferences. For example, here at home, centuries of colonization’s ongoing attempts to erase Indigenous Peoples and displace them from their traditional territories came to a head in a series of protests and blockades across Canada in 2020. This reminds us of the profound importance of informed, empathetic, and conscientious intercultural communication in depolarizing heated dialogue and rectifying social injustices, and during these pandemic times, in cultivating multicultural learning communities online.
A further crisis highlighted in 2020 is the continued poisoning of rational public dialogue. In an era in which technology can handily help to parlay fear, ignorance, or malice into mistrust and spread it like fertilizer (among other pungent analogies), conspiracy theories abounded as apparently even less logical than usual efforts to explain reality. Rather than debate the premises of any one such theory, communicators would do well to turn the discussion to how conspiracy theories arise and function, and the damage that they can inflict.
Ultimately, 2020 reminds us that even the heftiest challenges can present opportunities of no less magnitude and scope. And as any scholar, practitioner, or a fan of our discipline can tell us, a key to addressing crises and prompting positive change is communication. The pandemic doesn’t change that; if anything, in distancing us from each other and more, it emphasizes that fact with a force calling on each of us to bring our fullest, most informed, and most compassionate selves to the task of leaving the world in better shape than it seems to be in now.