NZ’s Comms Approach to COVID-19 Lauded by International Public Relations Experts

The NZ Government’s Response to COVID-19 has been a real-time lesson in crisis communications and has drawn applause from international and local experts alike.

A recent PRovoke COVID-19 PR Industry Survey saw global industry experts award New Zealand’s handling of the crisis as the most impressive followed by Germany. Unsurprisingly the United States and United Kingdom did not elicit as much support from public relations industry leaders who said the former had the least impressive response, followed by the UK. 

So what was so endearing about our nation’s communications response? 

From the outset the Prime Minister took a decisive leadership role, telling us all firmly she was in charge with the words ‘ We must go hard and we must go early’.

This was a call to action that would resonate with the Kiwi psyche – reminiscent of an All Blacks coach in the locker room ahead of the RWC final. She even used the sporting terminology –  ‘we are a team of 5 million’ and kept this as a key message throughout the lockdown. 

Our PM also had the benefit of seeing the international fall-out ahead of finalising a strategy at the same time she has been resolute in her consistency and drawn on the expertise of her medical expert Dr Ashley Blomfield. 

In contrast, the US and UK responses were rocked by tragic, initial attempts at the development of herd immunity, the hospitalisation of their leader and a more-than-disturbing Disinfectant-gate incident – all of which has systematically eroded the confidence of the people in those countries. 

Ardern is viewed as an empathetic leader who is calm, rational and can be counted on in a crisis as we’ve seen with the Christchurch terror attack and White Island eruption, the former gaining her international respect for her handling of the tragedy.  

Daily Briefings Delivered Key Messages and Reassurance 

The establishment early on of the daily 1 pm updates was well-received by Kiwis who saw this as a consistent communication platform where she would address us, but also an opportunity for her to be tested by journalists on our behalf, asking the questions we all wanted answers to.

The briefings were used to inform us of updates, but also reassure us the Government had things in hand and to reiterate her key messages; that we were a team, that it was up to us to all do our bit, be kind, that we had to go hard and go early – all familiar statements that were repeated routinely. 

While she responded to journalists’ questions about the economy, families unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones and what each level restriction would mean, she also pulled no punches in telling us off when we’d done wrong. 

Communication that pulls no punches.

Like a scolding mother who had caught a child vaping she soon made her displeasure known with rule breakers flouting lockdown, referring to them as ones;  “I would charitably describe as idiots” and chastising journalists for their lack of medical credentials helped remind us in no uncertain terms that the only people qualified to challenge her approach behind the pandemic are those with a post-graduate, scientific pedigree in this field.

She balanced this with reassuring children that yes the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were essential workers. 

As well as the briefings Ardern made herself available to the NZ public often posting on Facebook and showing she was in there with us. 

In the course of a month, the Prime Minister has brought together a nation almost overnight and helped us achieve what almost no other nation has. 

As a leader, I believe you are only as good as the management of your last crisis.

We are travelling an uncertain path and the longer we go without an economic end game in sight, the shorter our collective memories will become!

PM’s Personality helped messages resonate effectively 

Despite her role as the nation’s leader Ardern has continued to cultivate an image of empathy and accessibility. Internationally she has been acclaimed for her ability to navigate a crisis also featuring on the cover of Time magazine for her response to the Christchurch Mosque shootings. 

However, Ardern does not rely solely on official channels to reach her audiences, often using her own social media platforms. She can be heard on commercial radio happily talking to Breakfast Hosts about Valentine’s Day gifts transitioning seamlessly to talk about economic matters.

Ardern seems calm, capable, kind with an innate sense of fun. She shares anecdotes about her family life, including potty training her toddler during lockdown and recently a snapshot of her own isolation bubble, complete with the cup of tea and breakfast in a Tupperware container delivered by her mum to her door.