Nova Scotia

N.S. COVID-19 communications plan effective, but risks losing public attention, says prof

Since March, updates from the N.S. government have been provided almost exclusively by Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang via live online broadcasts. On only a handful of occasions has anyone else joined them.

Premier Stephen McNeil has acknowledged there have been mistakes

Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang have been almost the exclusive face of the Nova Scotia government's COVID-19 response. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

A communications professor says the Nova Scotia government's approach during the coronavirus pandemic has been effective, but she cautions it might need to be adjusted in order to maintain the public's attention.

Since March, updates from the government have been provided almost exclusively by Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang via live online broadcasts. On only a handful of occasions, in the early days of the pandemic, has anyone else joined them.

Amy Thurlow, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and chair of the school's communications studies department, said the approach is a good way to deliver a focused message, particularly at a time when people are looking for as much information as possible about an important subject.

"When we're in that heightened level of crisis, people want that daily — or even more, in some cases — update and they want to know, 'OK, what's going on in the world? I'm going to tune in at 3 o'clock and get the update.'"

For some time, Strang and McNeil were providing almost daily updates, informing people about the number of COVID-19 cases, recoveries, any deaths and driving home the message about public health protocols.

Introducing new faces

More recently, the message has evolved to also focus on the reopening of the economy, and the briefings have become less frequent, sometimes happening just once or twice a week.

As that message expands, and as the pandemic extends for an unknown number of months, Thurlow said one way the government can ensure people continue to tune in and pay attention is to have different people involved in the briefings.

"It's not sustainable to have that level of public attention on that one format for long periods of time," she said.

"It's sort of evolved into a broader discussion than just the 'OK, what are we doing about cases right now?' So they may want to share that messaging with other people who have expertise in those specific areas."

Cabinet ministers have been available to answer questions outside the COVID briefings, although infrequently. And they, like McNeil, have refused to meet with reporters in person since March.

Areas of criticism

Because the format the premier uses only permits reporters two questions each, there often isn't the ability to cover all the things he and Strang discuss.

There have also been occasions where incomplete or misstated information has been provided during the briefings.

Such has been the case around a pay bonus for some essential workers and the initial announcement of the family bubble. Originally it was described as something that had to apply to immediate family and was later clarified to be open to any specific group of a person's choosing.

Stephen McNeil at a COVID-19 briefing in early June. (CBC)

Opposition leaders say the premier has failed to be as clear about some of the most important issues during the pandemic, including what's happening at the border and plans for the reopening of schools and daycares.

Tory Leader Tim Houston pointed to what he called the mixed message of, on one hand, cancelling the Yarmouth ferry for the season, but on the other hand, it wasn't until this week that the government began taking names and contact information for people entering the province from outside Atlantic Canada.

Openness is better than secrecy

NDP Leader Gary Burrill noted that unlike most provinces, Nova Scotia did not have a clearly laid out, staged approach to reopening the economy.

While McNeil has said that was intentional, to allow businesses to open as quickly as public health officials deemed it safe, Burrill said the lack of a defined plan made for unnecessary confusion and anxiety.

"Only in Nova Scotia has this been lacking and where we are in the struggle against the pandemic has really been behind closed doors," he said.

"Openness is a great thing for dealing with anxiety. Secrecy is a great thing if you want to inflame it."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says the province did not have a clearly laid out, staged approach to reopening the economy. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

Jim Bickerton, a political scientist at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., said the premier and his government walk a delicate line at this point in the pandemic. As things move away from simply being in lockdown and trying to flatten the curve, that leaves more room for criticism and public pushback.

He pointed to the example of Nova Scotia using a much less stringent screening process at the border compared to New Brunswick and P.E.I. when the Atlantic bubble launched last week.

Public can be open to change

By Monday, following a weekend of criticism and concern from the public, McNeil introduced a self-declaration form anyone from outside Atlantic Canada must complete before entering Nova Scotia. Bickerton said the lack of a co-ordinated approach from the start didn't make a lot of sense, and opened the government up to criticism.

"I think that that's probably the most obvious shortcoming here of what's transpired over the last few days," he said.

On Thursday, without going into specifics, McNeil acknowledged not everything about his government's approach during the pandemic has gone according to plan.

"It's not always been perfect, and we've made mistakes along the way," he said during a COVID-19 briefing.

"But we've listened, and we would fix [mistakes] as pointed out."

Thurlow said audiences are generally open to people making changes, especially when they come with an acknowledgement that there was a misstep, rather than trying to reinvent history or deflect blame.

"The fact that they came up with the screening form and now seem to be speaking more strongly in terms of managing the border, I think that will serve them well."

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With files from CBC Mainstreet

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