Written evidence submitted by Dr Gemma Bridge and Professor Ralph Tench, Leeds Beckett University (CLL0003)
Summary of research
The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (COVID-19) outbreak has had an enormous impact globally. The strategic communication management of messaging about the virus by national governments has played an essential role in controlling the spread of the disease. A research project in three of the earliest hit countries in Europe looked to evaluate through a standardised instrument the early perceptions of public communication about COVID-19. The aim of the surveys was to assess the UK, Spanish and Italian government’s communication management of the COVID-19 crisis, focussing on the most used channels for information receipt and searching; the most credible sources of information; the types of messages received and remembered; and the effectiveness of the messages. To explore this aim, an online survey was developed and shared by researchers at Leeds Beckett University, UK. The survey was translated and shared by colleagues at IULM University Centre for Strategic Communication, Italy and Rey Juan Carlos University, Spain. The survey was shared within the first three weeks of the initial lockdown in March 2020 in the three countries. The survey was completed by 609 UK adults, 546 Spanish adults and 468 adults from Italy. The quantitative data from all three surveys was analysed descriptively and using one-way ANOVA whilst qualitative data was analysed thematically.
UK based research team
The UK survey was conducted by Professor Tench and Dr Gemma Bridge, both based at Leeds Beckett University. Professor Tench is the Director of Research for Leeds Business School and the elected President and Head of the Board of Directors for the European Public Relations Research and Education Association (EUPRERA). EUPRERA is the leading academic association for public relations and strategic communication. Dr Bridge is a research evidence impact officer at Leeds Beckett. Her research interests include advocacy, health communication and public policy.
Relevance to parliamentary members
We believe that this research would be of interest to members of parliament as it explores communication in the media on the crisis of the coronavirus outbreak and covers a number of relevant themes including sources of information, possible sources of misinformation and public opinion on government decisions and actions. The research provides novel insights from a sample of the UK population into where the public receive and search for information, which sources of information and which communicators they perceive to be credible, the messages that have been received and remembered and the overall effectiveness of the UK government’s strategic communication management of the crisis. The research also provides novel insights into the public’s perceptions of the government’s decisions and actions, highlighting what the public think could have been done differently to improve the effectiveness of the communication during the crisis. Finally, the research helps to shed light on key areas of interest relating to COVID-19, in particular ARI 10.1; 10.2; and 10.8.
COVID-19; Government communication; Social media; Trust; Strategic communication
A 20-question online survey was developed in English and translated into Spanish and Italian. The survey was conducted between March 10 and April 13 2020, in Italy, Spain and the UK. This period of time represented the initial weeks of lockdown in the three countries. The surveys were shared online with a sample of adults, 16 years of age or older. The UK survey was uploaded to Qualtrics, a survey platform, that was used for the development and dissemination of the survey. Recruitment for the surveys was conducted via convenience and snowball sampling using the researchers’ personal and work networks and social media (Twitter and Facebook). To increase response rates, and to increase diversity of the UK sample, a post on Facebook, with a link to the survey, was promoted for 5 days using £100 credit. The study received ethical approval from the lead researchers’ universities. The UK branch of the research received ethical approval from the Leeds Beckett University ethics review board.
Media use for Covid-19 information
In the context of crises, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, the media play a crucial role in the public awareness of risks. Findings from all three surveys show a synchronous use of multiple media and platforms in line with channel complementarity theory and supporting research that suggests there is an increase in media consumption during emergencies. Audiences have drifted away from traditional media (Anderson, 2017; Stroud, 2011), retrieving much of their information about health from online news sources (Cuan-Baltazar et al., 2020), evident during national and global health crises, such as Ebola or Zika infections, and the COVID-19 pandemic (Hernández-García & Giménez-Júlvez, 2020; Nielsen et al., 2020).
The findings from the UK survey suggest that two-thirds of respondents use TV to both passively receive and actively search for information about COVID-19. This supports previous research suggesting that TV is an ideal medium for sharing instructional messages during crises. Facebook and online newspapers were also important sources of information for most of the population (38.7%, 33.9% respectively). This reflects a growing reliance on the internet in the UK. Results from the Spanish survey suggest that most respondents (86.2%) use TV as their main source of information, but WhatsApp and online newspapers are also used by many respondents (77.6% and 75% respectively). Information consumption trends do not show any statistical differences based on the gender, age or education level of respondents. The Italian survey reflects the findings from Spain, with results suggesting that most respondents use TV (61%) and online newspapers (50.4%) to search for and receive information. Social media was used infrequently, with 45.7% of respondents not using Facebook at all, and only 5% using Twitter to search for information. See Figure 1 for a summary of the information sources identified in the three parallel surveys.
Figure 1. Summary of the sources of information about COVID-19 from Spain, Italy and the UK
Evaluation of the government’s communicative management of the COVID-19 crisis
(ARI 10.1. How successful have communications campaigns around public health messages been during the COVID-19 outbreak? What impact have they had on the public’s behaviour? What learning can be drawn from the successes and failures of the communications strategy used during the COVID-19 outbreak?)
The role of governments, public agencies, and expert sources in communicating key information is central to how people anticipate, understand, prepare for, and respond to an emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK survey suggests that most respondents do not consider government communication as the most reliable source (51.4%). Moreover, most consider government communication to be unclear (57.4%) and has confused the population (65.5%). Many respondents agreed that government communications had been scheduled appropriately (49.3%) but thought that the communication had generated alarm (42.5%). Just over a third of Spanish respondents (38%) report government communication as the most reliable source of information. Whilst 33.8% report that information from the government has been clear and sufficient. However, most Spanish respondents (52.8%) believe that the government has hidden some of the truth (45.9%) and has caused public alarm (48.4%). Results from the Italian survey suggest that companies are the most important source of information, with 82% reporting a company when asked about the most effective communication campaigns.
Trust in information sources
(ARI 10.2. How are the roles of different agencies with public health responsibilities understood by the public? Does the public view messages from some agencies as more credible than others? How should this shape future public health messaging?)
Pandemic preparedness is based on trust in the information, trust in the sources, and particularly trust in public authorities. Trust is a key motivator for individuals preferring one source of information over the other (Glik, 2007; Rains, 2007; Zerfass et al., 2019). It is also relevant to consider the trust that the audience has in the individual who is sharing the information since their credibility plays an important role in behavioural responses (Spiegelhalter, 2017; Turcotte et al., 2015). Despite the high consumption of information, respondents from the UK, Spain and Italy reported low trust in media overall. Trust in information shared by health influencers and alternative health influencers on social media was lowest across respondents from all three countries. In contrast, health staff and health organisations were highly trusted by respondents from all three countries.
The findings from the UK survey highlight that most respondents do not trust information from the government (48.9%), with differences in trust apparent between education levels, reflecting the recent decline in government trust across Europe. Moreover, most respondents reported no trust in information shared by the media (69.3%), unknown health personnel on social networks (e.g. Instagram) (83.9%) and information shared by alternative health influencers (92%). As with findings from Italy, information shared by the WHO was highly trusted by many UK respondents (75.8%).
The Spanish survey suggests that government communication was a trusted source of information, but the Spanish governmental committee put together for the COVID-19 crisis was trusted by most respondents (58.3%). Regional (37%) and local governments (33.6%) were not well trusted by the Spanish population. In terms of individuals as sources of information, Spanish respondents report greatest trust in health staff overall (75.1%) and health staff personally known (73.5%). However, only 40% of respondents trust information from the media. Just over a quarter of Italian respondents trust information from the government (29.3%), and 80% do not trust the information shared by friends or acquaintances. In contrast, most respondents (51%) trust information from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, an Italian public health institution and the World Health Organization (40.8%). Information shared by health influencers was lowest across respondents, however those who had greatest trust in influencers were also more likely to trust information from friends and acquaintances. Moreover, when education level was considered, those with higher qualifications had greater trust in institutional channels whilst those with lower qualifications trusted information shared by influencers and friends.
What messages do citizens remember from the communication campaigns?
(ARI 10.8. How does Government transparency about evidence and strategy affect the public’s likelihood to follow guidance?)
The potential for information to have an effect on its audience relates to the effectiveness of that communication. This is important to consider since the effectiveness of communication could determine whether the public listen to and act on the information that is shared with them. The findings of the UK survey reveal that most respondents have retained important messages such as hand washing and physical distancing to keep people safe (96.3%), the increased risk for the elderly and those with underlying conditions (91.5%), and that travelling within a country could pose risks to health (91.5%), reflecting findings from Spain and Italy. However, unlike Spanish respondents those from the UK appear to be confused about when and where to go for help, and many UK respondents thought that government policies had been implemented too late (71%).
Across the Spanish survey, most respondents appear to retain information about where to go for help (94%) and the importance of maintaining physical distance and hand washing to prevent the virus from spreading (82.3%). Respondents also appear to have retained messages relating to the minimal impact of COVID-19 on most of the population and how adhering to confinement policies was an act of solidarity with vulnerable people. Results from the Italian survey suggest that a third of respondents recognise the importance of adopting responsible behaviour, such as physical distancing, the use of masks and the donation of money to support health personnel.
What is next for this research?
We are continuing to work with our Spanish and Italian colleagues, as well as with colleagues from a range of other countries across the world, to explore results by demographic groups (age, gender, income and education level). These comparisons will enable us to understand how the communicative management of the COVID-19 crisis has been perceived in Europe and beyond. We are in the process of disseminating the research in academic and practice journals, as well as in other formats, which we hope will enable institutions – including government communicators - to learn from this pandemic to improve their communication management in future crises.
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