Ensight Analysis: Evaluating the Government’s Communication Response to COVID-19

As any communications director worth their salt will tell you, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. This goes double for a government dealing with a global crisis. So just how effective has the Liberal government been at delivering, and staying on message?

We start with the Prime Minister. Justin Trudeau knows that this is a make-or-break moment for his leadership. His legacy will be defined partly by his handling of COVID-19, and his performance so far has reflected that. His daily updates, some containing substantial updates and others simply a message of reassurance, have shown a PM who cares about both the economic and the human aspects of this issue. Ducking inside to get his coat when he was cold during one of his briefings was particularly humanizing. Even though he is in quarantine, he has still managed to lead (while parenting three kids!) and Canadians appear to be heeding his advice. His measured answers to questions regarding the Emergency Act have been solid panic preventers, and his assurances of financial support for Canadians have eased, at least a little, the anxiety many of us are feeling. He did receive backlash for his decision to delay closing the Canada-US border, but given considerations for trade and US relations, it was not a decision to be made lightly. His performance hasn’t been perfect however, with genuine criticism to be levelled for his government’s slow start to handling this crisis. As Prime Minister, he should have been the first out of the gate with updates, news, and plans, but many of the provinces beat him to the punch.

Next, the Federal Cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has again been called upon and is the public face of cabinet while the Prime Minister self-isolated. Meanwhile Health Minister Patty Hajdu has posted solid performances in interviews, playing the calm-yet-compassionate health professional. It was a rocky start however with a Monday night scrum held by five ministers, including Minister Joly and Minister Lametti, that felt loose and unprepared and gave the sense that Ministers were playing politics, perhaps the last thing the public wants to see right now. Since then however, Ministers have kept on message, holding daily press conferences, refereed by Freeland, in which they reiterate the Prime Minister’s remarks and provide updates on their portfolios. In all, Cabinet seems to be filling the role of supporting cast to the PM, which isn’t a bad role to play in these circumstances.

We would be remiss if we didn’t end with the exceptional performance from Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. Perhaps it’s because she’s not political, or perhaps it’s because she is a genuine health expert, but her public appearances have been lauded by communication experts. This is even more impressive when you consider that she has never captured the national attention in this way before and is in uncharted territory herself. She fulfills the necessary role of the voice of reason in this crisis. Her explanations on “flattening the curve” and why it matters are accessible, and her advice, reasonable. Overall, Dr. Tam comes across as in control, serious, calm, and knowledgeable, impressions which will make this crisis go by much more smoothly.

In totality, despite a slow start, the government’s response has been solid, with strong performances from individuals in key roles. If the government can hold the line on messaging and keep a strong supporting cast and a suite of experts behind them, then from a communications perspective, the hard part might soon be over for the government.