COVID messaging missing its mark and nobody is talking about it

This article first appeared on issue 295 of the MARKETING Weekender

Effective messaging is not just about getting your points across. It is also about winning hearts and minds. 

I find our government messaging very official, and is very boring and dead-pan, after more than a year. I know COVID is a serious matter. But do the “Perutusan Khas” sessions have to be so instructive in tone. 

Which brings me to the point I am trying to make. 

Why has the government not run massive public message campaigns across all our media platforms? Why don’t they engage advertising and media agencies to do a better job in communicating? Why is it that the only time we get to hear from them is on Bernama (yawn), and RTM (still around?) and local channels provided by private stations. 

And not forgetting the intermittent SMSes which are as exciting as a visit to the dentist are completely out of place. Nice try!

Leaders with legacy thinking 

Do the rulers of our lives know that even advertisers don’t spend money on RTM. Why do they think it is the main game in town? The government may control some media platforms via proxy but their understanding about media is far from current. 

They actually think people are dying to hear from them. When in fact people listen to them out of necessity, not need. They expect everything to happen just because they say so. This is so 1960s! 

That’s probably why half the country has not signed up with MySejahtera, even though we have more than 20 million smart phone users.

By now Malaysians have heard a lot about billions being spent on COVID measures. They have become numb trying to figure out Control Orders which are slowly running out of alphabets to label themselves. 

Too much hardware and not enough software. Everything is about stats, not enough about meaningfulness. About hard-selling the official rules, not enough about soft-selling the genuine compassion. 

Government campaigns have always had the stigma of being awarded under dubious clouds and the industry laughs its way way out of briefing rooms while some laugh their way to the bank. And this will include more than the agency folk. Arrests in recent years testify to the hidden truth in these observations. 

Communicate and Touch People.

There have been many government campaigns before: Tak Nak, Road Safety and more…. But are there none for COVID? Does the government think PSAs need to be boring to be effective? 

The COVID tragedy has exposed how the Government communicates and not many are impressed. 

Billions are being spent in the fight for COVID. But how about spending RM100 million and make our lives more interesting? I am sure Malaysia’s award-winning agencies and media platforms can do an amazing job with content, reach and empathy. Provided, of course, there is no leakage along the way. 

We have heard of Recover Plans, Immunisation Plans and all that “important” stuff. But where is the Communications Plan? Because with the amount of mathematical information the average citizen has to digest, we need to streamline the approach by market segmentation. 

If government agencies like RTM, Bernama and JAPEN are entrusted to do all the communications you can expect the same “pengumuman” style stuff. Their method of messaging will not survive in the Digital age. I am not saying they don’t do a good job; I am saying that modern communications is really a professional task that evolves by the minute. 

The good news is Malaysia has many ad and media agencies that are tuned in to what works and what does not work. Their work is driven by market forces and are paid based on results and effectiveness. 

You can’t apply these benchmarks to the government agencies and hope it happens.

See how other countries handle their public messaging, professionally:

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