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Crisis demands clarity

Politicians and commentators have an important role during COVID-19: deliver simple, effective messages.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical and health experts have provided us with important statistics, charts and analysis on a near-daily basis.

At the same time, politicians and governments have introduced everything from wage subsidies to warnings about social distancing.

Some information has been easy to understand.

But most of it has been difficult for average citizens to properly synthesize.

In this time of global crisis, shouldn’t everything that’s released be as straightforward as possible?

Consider what communications firm Navigator principal Amanda Galbraith tweeted on April 1: “If I could say one thing it’s we need to bring #COVIDー19 language down to eye level. Stuff like enhanced measures, contact tracing, it means NOTHING to normal people. We need to get blunt and hit people over the head with comms if you want it to change behaviour.”

It didn’t surprise me that Galbraith, an intelligent and talented political commentator who I worked with in the prime minister’s office (and who later became director of communications for Toronto Mayor John Tory), wrote this. She, like me and several other commentators, has always believed in the principle of using simple, direct language to get the message across.

This is exactly what the role of politicians, pundits and the media needs to be right now.

Some political leaders, like U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, mastered this technique to near-perfection. They have or had different styles and strategies, but were able to speak directly to the people.

Many of today’s leaders haven’t even come close to this point, and have a long, long way to go. Here are a few suggestions to help them along.

Champagne words and complex arguments have their place in society, but they rarely resonate with most people.

Using short, easy-to-understand messages like “stay at home,” “don’t visit family and friends” and “only go grocery shopping once a week” removes any confusion and/or misunderstanding.

Using basic numbers also works well, including “keep two metres away from people” or “if you walk or stand near someone in a park, you’ll be fined five thousand bucks.”

It’s also important to consistently use real-world examples to make a point.

For instance, Johnson recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to intensive care unit in London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital on Monday. Dominic Raab, the First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, has been deputized to act as prime minister “where necessary” for the time being.

This is horrible news and we hope and pray for Johnson’s immediate recovery.

But it’s also a real-world example that average people can identify with. It doesn’t matter whether they support Johnson’s ideological leanings or his political policies. What it shows is that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and can affect people from all walks of life.

That’s why we all need to take proper precautions to protect our families, friends, communities and countries – and stay safe and healthy.

The regular use of the principle KISS – keep it simple, stupid – doesn’t mean that the majority of people aren’t intelligent enough to understand highfalutin ideas.

Rather, it’s a sign of intelligence to recognize that all of us should be able to understand what a person says, what’s written on a piece of paper, and what a new act or law actually means.

Rest assured that commentators like Galbraith, myself and others will continue to “hit people over the head with comms” until this happens.

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

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