[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m here to inform you that we’re in the home stretch of this pandemic. Even if you wouldn’t know it from anything Canadian officials are telling you, vaccines work and hundreds of thousands of Canadians are getting theirs every day.
We can look to the United Kingdom right now to see what happens when enough people get their shots and what life looks like as pandemic restrictions loosen. We know a lot more than we ever have about what’s safe and what’s not, about how to protect ourselves and still find activities worth doing.
So why don’t communications from public health officials reflect that? Why do they all sound like this pandemic will go on forever?
News Clip: Wash your hands well and often, cover your coughs…
News Clip 2: That message delivered almost a year ago, still relentless today. Mass physical distancing, all those [00:01:00] personal measures Canadians have been following, Tam says are here to stay for many months to come.
News Clip 3: Torontonians will not be sipping wine or enjoying a beer in parks this summer. The motion brought forward to the city has been denied.
News Clip 4: I have a message for young people who have had enough of the pandemic. I understand that you’re, what you’re going through, but more and more young people are getting sick. So please follow the rules to protect you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why can’t politicians and doctors give us hope, or at least give us a few carrots mixed in with all the sticks? Do they not trust us with optimism? Do they worry that we’ll start breaking the rules early? Or is treating Canadians like obedient robots doing more harm than good as we try to finish this pandemic off.
[00:02:00] I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Matt Gurney is a columnist with TVOntario, and with the National Post. He writes a newsletter called Code 47, which you can find on Substack. Hey Matt.
Matt Gurney: Hey, good to be here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thank you so much. If I had to ask you to describe Canada’s public health communication during this pandemic in one word, what would you come up with?
Matt Gurney: Bad. And if you allowed me more words, and if this was not a family-friendly podcast, I could add at least one qualifier before bad, but for our purposes now, bad will do.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What the hallmarks of, and again, just for everybody listening, who, who didn’t kind of get it from the intro, we’re not talking about specific policy today. We’re talking about how that policy has been communicated, uh, to the public. What makes for bad public communication?
Matt Gurney: I think maybe it’s easier to answer the question in the reverse. What, what makes for good public communication, which is, uh, clarity, [00:03:00] uh, accessible language free of jargon, strong communicators, and whoever your chosen person is, doesn’t have to be the policy maker, doesn’t have to be the expert, but there needs to be someone who’s actually communicating the policy in a way that they’re comfortable with it. I mean, even if they’re not themselves an expert, there are, there are many good communication professionals in this country who are, who are not originally either by, by workplace experience or education actually experts in the topic, but they, they learn, they get mastered.
So I would say it’s clarity. It’s simple language. It is consistency. Th- there are complications that come into it because we live in a big diverse country, right. So then you kind of have to figure out, okay, having communicated effectively in English and French, then we got to go out and start getting these, uh, messages out to people who are new Canadians and speak other languages.
But even in the, in the core official languages, we, we have not been clear. We have not been consistent. We have not, [00:04:00] uh, had effective communicators actually doing the job of the communication and all of these things compound the fact that, that we are having an evolving situation. I mean, this thing has been, I would say at first it was fast moving. Now it seems to be moving extremely slowly. Uh, but we have, there are very clear bars for good communication, very well understood, nothing particularly controversial. And w- we have really not been able to consistently achieve any of the best practice standards.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about the tone of communications? And here, I’m thinking specifically over the last, you know, four or five months, I don’t think anybody would fault the tone of the public messaging in the early months of the pandemic, or, you know, the straightforward orders, because everybody was scared, including the people making policy, but as we’ve come, uh, towards vaccinations and hopefully come out of this third wave, how much does tone factor into it? Because when I put it to [00:05:00] myself, um, about what one word I would use recently, dour was like the first thing that came to mind.
Matt Gurney: Yeah, no, I think that’s actually a really good way of putting on this. And this has been something I’ve been, uh, picking out a little bit around the, uh, the edges. I probably should write a proper, full column about this, but I think the one thing that we need to remember, and I’m not, I’m not appealing for sympathy for anyone who’s made bad decisions here. I’m just stating an objective fact. All of our policy makers and all of our policy communicators are exhausted and they are burnt out like, much like all the rest of us, right. Like I, I’m cranky. I’m exhausted. I’m burnt out. I’m also not the one who has nominal responsibility for thousands of deaths.
I’m not defending anyone’s, uh, bad actions. I’m not defending anyone’s mistakes. I’m not defending any policy decision. I’m just trying to state the obvious here. Everyone in a position in authority in this country right now is exhausted. This has been going on for a long time. You’ve mentioned [00:06:00] dour. I think you’re absolutely right about that. The messaging has been, we don’t need delusional, we don’t need false hope, we don’t need a cheerleader.
But we have now real world examples in the United Kingdom and in Israel and increasingly in the United States as well, that there is light at the end of the tunnel here. And if you look at the public statements coming out of our public health officials in this country, and then you look at the fact that, you know, bars are opening again in the US and the pubs are crawling in, in the UK. And the Israelis are currently having another difficulty unrelated to this. But if not for the rockets raining down on their cities, they could be out at bars too. The pandemic is over in Israel. That’s us in three or four months.
And all we need to do is stick the landing here on getting the messaging right, which is that, okay, we’re not there yet, we’re still in a, in a cautious phase, there’s still things we need to be careful for. But good news is coming. [00:07:00] And I don’t know, you put a microphone in front of any of these people who are nominally the public facing communicators for many of our public health agencies, and basically they can’t wait to tell you about, you know, that there might be an asteroid that slams into the planet or that we still have poverty issues to deal with here.
I don’t know if they’re exhausted and kind of projecting a little bit their own internalized frustrations. I don’t know if they just desperately need media training, but the messaging coming out of our public health officials does not reflect the objective facts that we actually have good news coming our way, and jurisdictions that are even a little bit ahead of us right now prove that to be true.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why do you think it is that the messaging doesn’t seem to have that hopeful, professional tone that you’d want it to? I mean, exhaustion is one thing, but. You know, these are governments, they have communication staff. And I know this because lots of journalists get laid off and go to work there.
[00:08:00] Matt Gurney: We sure do. Um, no, look, I was actually thinking about this exact issue and the, um, the way my columns get written, it always starts with an idle thought and then I either write it down immediately, or I mull over it for a while. And this is one I’ve put in the mull over category.
But I’m wondering if one of the problems we’re dealing with here is that our, our government communications in general, and I don’t mean narrowly elected officials, I don’t mean public health officials. I mean, you and I have actually talked about this before. Canadian policy on communication is to say as little as possible to, to dodge, bob, weave, evade as much as possible. The, the inbuilt bias to Canadian government communications is minimal transparency, minimal disclosure, and we have an entire communication class in government that excels in communicating as little as possible.
Like we have as, as a country, as a society, as governments, we have not [00:09:00] prioritized clear, effective, timely communication, which is why any half decent communicator is put on a pedestal in our politics. Like I think for instance, I think Justin Trudeau is a reasonably good communicator. I don’t think he is by any objective standard a great communicator. I don’t think he’s one of the great orators of history. But the guy can string a couple of sentences together and he can smile while he does it, and we read like years of think pieces about his charisma. All he does is answer some questions in a reasonably cheerful way. He’s gotten a little more dour over the years.
Canadians don’t communicate well, our governments don’t prioritize this. And I wonder if what we’ve been seeing out of our, uh, public, uh, communications, public health communications in particular reflects this inbuilt bias in Canadian governance, that the best communication is the communication that commits to as little as possible, shares as little as possible, and is as, uh, as little revealing, as least revealing [00:10:00] as humanly possible of any information that the public actually wants to get their hands on.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you have a general approach that is based in that kind of place of, of not being as clear and direct as possible, like how does that general approach sort of seep into the level of individual pieces of communication?
Matt Gurney: Oh, well, I mean, without even getting into specific examples, I think every journalist in this country has had the experience of asking a question that ought to have a pretty clear answer. The answer might be “Yes, that that is true.” The answer could be, “No, that is true.” The answer could be, “Well, it’s complicated, and we’re going to find an expert to explain that to you.” But what you end up getting is something like, “Hi Matt, thanks for your question. Our government remains committed to developing job opportunities for the middle-class.” like what you get is basically lifted right out of a campaign document.
And there’s a prioritization, I was speaking about this recently with a colleague, what’s been prioritized of late, is that, you know, we we’ve had those old conversations, right? I mean, the, the [00:11:00] medium is the message, it’s become a cliche. But right now we also have a political class that has adapted communication to the medium.
So if you’re a politician, right, and if you’ve got some, ah, some bad news. Like, you know, you, you you’re, you’re in a lousy situation, you’ve, there’s a report that’s come out, it’s damning, there’s a political scandal in your office. You sit down in one of these interviews and, you know, from the politician’s perspective or the public servant’s perspective, the optimal outcome is saying nothing and providing no quotes and providing almost nothing that is in any way useful. And in your mind, you know, alright, it’s a, it’s a talk radio interview, right? You’ve got about eight minutes. It’s a TV interview, it’s probably even shorter than that. It’s probably four or five, maybe six minutes. So what you what ended up getting, and sometimes you get it with a smile and sometimes you don’t, is you get a minister up there who goes, “Well, yeah, hey, thanks for that question about this horrible misconduct scandal bursting out of my office right now. And I would like to spend the next four and a half minutes of our five minutes on air [00:12:00] together talking about how committed we are to appropriating new funds in the upcoming budget.” And they just go on and on and on.
And guys like you and I, who actually interview people for a living. Like we kind of, like, we know the game and we interview and we, we, we interrupt and we redirect and they go, “Oh, okay, well, thank you for that question.” And then they just go right back onto their message. I mean, you’d mentioned before that there are tons of unemployed journalists kicking around who go into the communications world. That’s absolutely true. How many of them actually end up spending their time, though, improving communication, actually making governments any better at sharing information? It seems to me that a lot of them actually make very good, comfortable wages and working nine to five hours, teaching people how to say as little as possible in the time allotted to an interview.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You make a really good point about the systemic problems, but I want to take a little bit closer look at some of this specific public health messages [00:13:00] that we’ve been getting, or, or not been getting. And the first question I have is how would good communications balance being truthful with being useful? And I’ll give you a couple of examples that we’ve both heard recently. I mean, it is true that people can get COVID outdoors. That’s true. It is true that a vaccine is not 100% effective and some people get COVID after being vaccinated. Those statements aren’t lying, but they seem to me to be coming at the message from the wrong side.
Matt Gurney: Well, I mean, being outdoors is a great example, um, where the best possible public health advice right now, if we were robots, would be stay in your home, interact with no one, subsist on like protein paste and you know, in three weeks come out and any virus in your body will be dead. And if we all do that at the same time, we’ll beat this thing.
The problem of course, is that our [00:14:00] public health strategy involves human beings and human beings are weird, stubborn meat sacks, and we have emotions and we have feelings and we, we miss each other and we want to interact with people. If you understand human nature, what you tell people is that, okay, interact outside. Like the messaging exists, right? It’s like go outside, meet in public, uh, stay in your family units. If you’re mingling with others, maintain reasonable separation. And if separation is impossible, for whatever reason, put on a mask. Like this is not anything that you and I could not communicate to the public in 30 seconds of brainstorming, we would sit down, we’d look at the information ahead of us and get it out there.
But what you end up getting are people who either are so risk averse and don’t want to be blamed for the one guy who, who catches COVID at a tennis court or something, and ends up, uh, having a negative outcome, or they’re just not trained in disclosure. Um, they’re just not actually trained [00:15:00] in a way, with their communications training I mean, that prioritizes clear communications. So they still have this instinct whenever there’s risk and we’re living in the middle of a pandemic, God, God willing, we’re living in the tail end of it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Matt Gurney: But we’re still always risk. And instead of being honest with people and saying, yeah, well, if you go out, there’s a small risk that you might get COVID in outdoor environment, and there’s a small risk if you get COVID, you’ll die of it even if you’re vaccinated.
Instead of having these things contextualized, and again, the Israeli and the British information shows us what our future is and the future is great. But instead of talking about it from that perspective, you said it perfectly before, we get the dour verdict of, “Hey, so what’s our summer going to look like?” And we have, for instance, Theresa Tam, I don’t mean to pick on her, but you know, she, she’s an obvious representative example.
“Hey, what’s our summer going to look like.” There will still be people getting infected even with vaccines. Oh, okay. Like you can tell people what they need to know, where you can say, look, we’re going to be living with this thing for awhile. No vaccine is perfect. No [00:16:00] public health plan is perfect, but once the following conditions are met, here’s what we can do. This is what reopening will look like. You know, a worst case scenario might be, we need to maintain mask wearing for the next six months.
It is so easy to set out, even in general terms, uh, what, what these guidelines look like, but what we have seen again and again and again in this pandemic is Canadians who are not good at communicating, being tasked with communicating.
Theresa Tam, again, not meaning to pick on her, but I mean, at the start of the pandemic, she was the face of, “Well, the risk of Canadians are low. Oops. No, it wasn’t. We’ve been crushed by a wave of this pandemic.” She was the wave of, well, you know, she was the face of, “Well, you know, there’s no real evidence for mask wearing. Oops. No. Okay. Wrong. Put on your masks.”
Like I, I don’t know at what point I, and I’m not questioning her medical expertise, but at what point do we grab somebody in the federal government? And man, you and I know people who could do this, who would be natural communicators, who are smart enough to assimilate the [00:17:00] information, get up to speed, and would be able to deliver useful public health information in a timely way.
The problem though is, and you know this, you and I have the luxury of talking way more openly than even the world’s best communicator if they’re being subjected to government communications discipline.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I want to pick on what you just said, um, about Theresa Tam, and we played some clips of her in the opening of this show. And you know, when you mentioned, um, the risk to Canadians is low, and well, we don’t need to wear masks or at least there’s no evidence showing that yet. I wonder if it’s sort of a once or twice burned, third times shy. And that’s why you get this, “Well, we’re not going to have a summer. We need to maintain all these measures because God forbid the government give us hope and we go out and a bunch of people get sick. Look, Teresa Tam was wrong again.”
Matt Gurney: There might be something to that. The other thing we need to consider, [00:18:00] and God knows I’m not trying to make the conversation more complicated because it’s complicated enough. The other thing though, that we need to keep an eye on, particularly when we’re talking about the federal level is that there is constant low to mid-level election speculation right now.
So, um, the prime minister recently came out and was talking about a one dose summer, right. He was coming right into saying, ” Yeah, we can all have our first doses by the summer and our second doses by the fall.” To be honest, I’ve been looking at the, the, the delivery rate of these vaccines, I’ve been looking at our available inventory. Unless the government has some really bad news about future deliveries they haven’t shared with us yet, we’re going to beat the objective targets that the prime minister was laying out today. And in my mind, I go. Oh, okay. He’s a politician who’s going to be running for reelection soon and he wants to manage expectations.
So we have to build some bias of that into our thinking that there is going to be an election soon. And the prime minister would rather, you know, under promise and over deliver than the opposite. But in, in the particular context of the public health [00:19:00] communicators, I think there probably is a degree of risk aversion here. I think you’re absolutely right. I think they have been criticized before. These are human beings we’re talking about, I’m sure the criticism stings. Just because you’re a professional doesn’t mean that you don’t take criticism personally. If only that were so, we would all live healthier, happier lives.
But I would have to say though, that there are some public communicators in this country. And an example would be perhaps Dr. Deena Hinshaw in Alberta, who actually was a rock star that the, the early phase of the pandemic. She was getting national acclaim. She was, you know, people all over the country going, “Oh, wow, I wish we had someone like Deena leading our public health effort”.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Bonnie Henry in BC, too.
Matt Gurney: Yeah. And then, I mean, in Alberta, particularly like the bottom falls out a bit, and then all of a sudden there, they’re not quite the celebrities they were. And maybe that’s inevitable, right, if you, if you set the, if you set the expectations too high. But I’m, I’m looking at, in particular, Ontario, where I live and where I’ve been riding this thing out and where I’ve [00:20:00] been looking at the public health communication, I cannot claim to have seen any particular deterioration in the communication skills of, of, uh, Dr. David Williams.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Fair.
Matt Gurney: They’re terrible, and they’ve been consistently terrible. I mean, I guess we can say there’s something for consistency. He’s been bad at this from the beginning and he’s bad at it still.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The last thing I want to talk about is how this messaging could, uh, probably won’t but could change going forward. And I was talking with a colleague of mine, Shannon Proudfoot, uh, Ottawa Bureau Chief at McLean’s. I saw you guys kind of interacting on this same point. And it’s that there doesn’t seem to be anything for the public to work towards or look forward to. You know, it seems like it is all stick and no carrot and there’s no like, “Well guys, you know, if we can get to 75% vaccinated, you know, we’re going to have a party in August. It’s going to be great.” Like they, they haven’t given us any control of this.
Matt Gurney: I think [00:21:00] you’re right on two levels, and it is important to understand both these levels and to understand the distinction between them. The first thing, you are absolutely right and this is part of the dour thing you and I have been talking about, we are not being asked to do anything except to shut up and stay home. And you know what, in the first wave, you didn’t need to tell people. We understood. It was a new novel threat. We stayed home, we kept our heads down and they want us to do it again. We know they want mobility down.
So instead of kind of being, “Hey guys, you know, you, you can do it. Uh, we’re almost there we’re making progress every day.” And we are making progress every day. Ontario is vaccinating 1% of the adult population every day. Every month, that’s one third of the adult population that gets ever closer.
That’s great news, but we never talk about it because the public health messaging from the government basically remains, “Shut up. Stay at home. Don’t talk to anybody, don’t even think about going to play tennis, and eat your gruel. And support local businesses using curbside pickup.” Like it’s ridiculous. They’re [00:22:00] terrible at this.
The other problem they have though, and this is a meta problem and it’s been a meta problem since the beginning of this, is that we don’t live in the world anymore where Canadians only get their news from Canadian sources.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Matt Gurney: We haven’t lived in that world for a while. And I think sometimes our government communications seem to assume that there’s almost 40 million Canadians who are only capable of absorbing information that is produced within Canada. You and I and 38 and a half million of our buddies are looking at our own public health officials every day. And they’re telling us, you know, “Shut up, stay home. Don’t play golf. Don’t go to the park. Don’t you dare drink wine in the park, you, you madman.” It’s this dour, miserable, sour, pessimistic messaging all the time.
And then we, we pick up our remote control and we click up a couple of channels and we see, uh, Boris Johnson in the UK with that wild mop of hair being, “Hey, the bars are open!” Or we click up a couple channels more and it’s Anthony [00:23:00] Fauci in the United States, Dr. Fauci talking about, “Hey, I think we’re going to be able to take our masks off soon.” We’re looking again at Israel where the Tel-Aviv beaches are packed and the nightclubs are going again, again current circumstances not withstanding.
So we’ve got these international comparisons that all of this good news is coming, and it’s not just that our, our politicians and our public health officials are grim and they’re dour. We know for an observable fact that they could be giving us good news if they chose to.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Matt Gurney:: It’s not just that the news they’re giving us is bad. We all know full well they could be doing a better job of this. They could be spicing up their comments with some degree of cautious optimism. And at a certain point, if you don’t, that’s a conscious choice, and that choice reflects on the people who were making it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Leads me to the last thing I want to ask you, which is how does this end from a communication standpoint? Um, [00:24:00] you know, restrictions are going to be lifted around the world, presumably, um, cases continue to go down, they will be lifted in Canada. How do the governments handle that? You know, will there be rejoicing? Will they say, “Okay! It’s amazing! You guys should go hug and you should party,” and et cetera, et cetera, or are they going to just drop restrictions at 5:00 PM on a Friday in a press release and be like, okay, by the way, everything’s open.
Matt Gurney: Yeah. And don’t go nuts, drive safe. Um, I think it’s going to be the latter, but I also think what’s going to happen, and if we’re being honest here, I think this is already happening, is that people are going to start making their own decisions. My parents are now, uh, vaccinated. They’re not fully vaccinated yet, but they’re well past 28 days of their first shot, they’re largely isolated.
My wife and I are now partially vaccinated as well. She’s a few weeks ahead of me. We are going to start seeing our parents soon.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Matt Gurney: And, uh, we’re, we’re going to do it cautiously. We’re gonna do it smart. We’re not gonna do anything dumb, [00:25:00] but I’m not going to wait for the government to say, okay, you can bubble with like a very tight family unit if you’re all at least partially vaccinated, we’re going to do it on our own. And I’m not necessarily advocating this as a good thing, but we, the Canadian people, have been left in the dark. We have been failed by our public health communicators. We have been vaccinating people at a fairly steady clip now for months, and we still don’t have centralized guidance on what partial vaccination does and does not permit us to do.
So we’re making our own decisions as best we can. It’s ridiculous that we’re here, but it’s going to happen. It’s going to be a beautiful summer. I mean, God willing, that’s maybe a bit aspirational, but I’m hoping for a beautiful summer, I’ve saved all my vacation days because I had nowhere to go this year.
People this summer are going to be loosening up, and what’s going to happen, and tell me you haven’t seen this story before. One day, the mayors, the, uh, the MPs, the MLAs, the, uh, all the officials top to bottom are going to look around and they’re going to realize they [00:26:00] lost the population and they’re going to want to get back on side. They’re going to adjust, eventually, their public health guidance to where the public already is. That is pathetic. It’s stupid. It could well blow up in our face, but tell me it’s not going to happen exactly that way.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: No, it probably will. I just wish, uh, you know, at the end of this, I just wish they trusted me a little more.
Matt Gurney: They don’t and I wish they did too. And I’ve written whole column columns about this before, either about specific issues or in the narrow abstract, Canadian government honestly believes that they are here to save us from ourselves.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Mmhm.
Matt Gurney: And, you know, there’s a lot of problems, you could get into that, you can talk about that from a philosophical issue, from a, uh, political issue, but the real problem of the last 15 months is that the people who think they know better than us, how we should lead our lives, have dropped the ball repeatedly and thoroughly within their own jurisdiction over this.
I was joking with a friend and the more I thought about it, the more [00:27:00] maybe I wasn’t joking, the real winners of this are going to be the, uh, the survivalists and the preppers, because they’re going to have the easiest marketing campaign ever when this is all over. They’re going to go out to the Canadian people, and they’re going to tell you, “You think the government had your back? No help was coming for you.” And you know, I’m not proposing we all go dig fallout shelters in the backyard, but look around at how, not only did we make a lot of mistakes at the outset, we didn’t learn from our mistakes. That is one of the meta narratives of this pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yup.
Matt Gurney: Theresa Tam is as terrible at communicating now as she was at the beginning. And no one did anything about it, they, no one got her training. No one replaced her. No one got her a media relations aide. Ditto Dr. David Williams in Ontario. City of Toronto, where I live, we just had the city government spend an entire year pondering whether or not to do a pilot project to expand park access for, for, for alcohol. And then eventually [00:28:00] deciding no, the year we’ve had hasn’t been enough time to come up with a pilot project. So instead of changing the laws, we’re just going to wave the laws. We’re not going to enforce the laws. Show me one level of government in this country that has impressed you during this pandemic, and that you’d actually have faith will have your back in the next one. I don’t see one.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I don’t think I do either. Thank you, Matt, for this conversation.
Matt Gurney: Sorry to leave you on a depressing note, but here we are
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Matt Gurney with TVO and with the National Post. That was The Big Story, for more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find all of our episodes, including Matt’s previous appearances, right there. You can talk to us anytime on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can, as always, email us thebigstorypodcast, that is all one word, and all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And find us in any podcast player you prefer. Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, [00:29:00] Overcast, PocketCast, doesn’t matter, we’re there. Hit follow, leave a rating, leave a review.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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