COVID reflections before they fade away

15 June 2022

What will we learn from the COVID pandemic?

At present, the answer appears to be “not now please”. It seems the collective trauma is so significant that we’d all rather move on with our lives and process things in their own time.

That doesn’t surprise me. I feel exactly the same way. By the end of 2020, I was mentally and emotionally cooked.

We saw it in the Federal Election. Despite rising numbers of cases and hospital admissions, no candidate on any side of the political divide seemed to mention the pandemic. Australians just want to move on.

I read the other day that when sociologists went to find stories from the Spanish Flu – surely there’s things to learn from a pandemic that killed more than World War 1 – they were flat out finding any. Seems like another group of people who were keen to move on.

But despite the impulse, doing that sells ourselves short. Our greatest lessons often come from the triumphs and trials that traumatic events force upon us. These seismic events show us the cracks in our society, and the strengths within ourselves.

For us in the Think HQ team, we’ve been in the trenches with the Victorian Government since 2020, working on COVID messaging and vaccination projects. It’s been tireless work across days, nights and weekends, working to save lives and livelihoods by crafting messages, campaigns and collateral to reach even the most marginalised of Victorians.

So, before I close this chapter myself, I wanted to record the learnings. They’re too valuable to be forgotten as we move on to the next thing.

What did we do?

Think HQ worked with the Victorian Government on rolling campaigns, often simultaneously.

In-language campaign partner – 58 languages

As the in-language campaign partner we translated key restriction and health messaging in up to 58 languages to be dispatched across paid media channels and via Think HQ’s CultureVerse community network.

We delivered hundreds of these campaigns in record speed, producing assets like print and radio ads, videos, and social and digital assets. 

The 58 languages we translated were dependent on 58 NAATI translators, 58 separate NAATI checkers and then finally, another checking round of the creative assets by another 58 people – all proud Victorians, to ensure translations connected with the right audiences.

Sometimes we produced a campaign from brief to dispatch within 12 hours. It was madness, and it required the dedication of the Think HQ team (including members from the Client Service, Localisation, CultureVerse, Creative, Production, Content and PR teams) plus the qualified translators ready and able to drop everything to make it happen as quickly as possible. 

My office sits outside our audio studio, and over two days, I would watch 58 people file in and out to produce 58 different radio ads. The commitment from these people, the Think HQ team and the Departmental staff we were working with was so extraordinary. We all had a purpose, and we were all there to do our best. It was incredibly unifying under extremely stressful circumstances.

The design and activation of the Enchanted Forest of Protection

Thanks to Camilo Suarez, we were able to produce the iconic Enchanted Forest of Protection for the State Kids vaccination centres within 48 hours! The feedback on that design was so overwhelmingly positive – it was such a high note. 

Think HQ’s highly talented activations team led by Emma Keatch, also worked to make the vaccination centres a safe and engaging place for children – with the development of video-based story time by well-known authors, and on-site activations like hopscotch and the popular sticker trees. I’m so proud we were able to turn an often traumatic and difficult experience into a safe and even enjoyable one for Victoria’s kids.

The Community Vaccine Amplification Project

By August 2021 and with COVID circulating back in the community, it was clear that we needed at least 80% of the community double vaccinated.  

We needed to convince hard to reach Victorians. With those in either the “hesitants” or “nonchalants” personas equalling 26% of the Victorian population. Those who were just impossible to reach were calculated at around 6% of the population, which to this day turns out to be pretty accurate.

As the campaign rolled on, and the community became double vaccinated very quickly, our focus turned towards other challenges – 5-11 aged cohort, people with disability, 3rd dose, in-language groups and the First Nations community.

The biggest communication challenge we faced by August onwards, was that people were starting to tune out from official government messaging. So, the project itself utilised existing community grant partners to amplify messages through their own social channels. 

We did this by analysing available data, identifying gaps in vaccination rates and selecting key community organisations with access to the identified target cohorts. We would then create the relationship with each community organisation, develop specific social and digital strategies, and help to implement the campaign with additional spend from the Department of Health. 

All up, we delivered 56 campaigns with 30 community partners, rolling out over 400 unique ads, in 10 languages, with a reach 14 million reach.

It was an incredibly sophisticated and equitable campaign. I fear my description of it just doesn’t do it justice.

Our approach was human-centred. There was no one message – it was tailored for each campaign and each audience. We crafted appropriate messages using data to identify who those people were, their concerns, the media they access, their geographic location and the language they spoke

In addition to using the trusted channels of community organisations, we worked with 22 clinical champions to create videos (often in-language) to send via those community channels. This had the benefit of reaching either state-wide, local or niche audiences via existing trusted networks

It was an inclusive project in that in-language and First Nations audiences were all part of the one campaign.

There was a significant capacity building element where we worked to help create content and develop and implement paid targeted social and digital strategies on behalf of community /media organisations.

What did we learn?

Across all of our activity, here are some of the topline key learnings:

  • Government communications must be inclusive: Not just during a crisis, but during Business as Usual as well. There must be consideration from strategy, content, timeliness, and budget to ensure every Victorian is receiving key information, all at once.
  • “Mainstream” vs “Diverse” is meaningless in the State of Victoria. Victoria is inherently multicultural – it’s time we tore down the walls of Mainstream and CALD and targeted our messaging to all Victorians. This idea that the 30% of people who don’t speak English at home in Victoria will only be communicated to “if there is enough budget left over” is challenging. The mandatory 5% ad spend for CALD media acts as some kind of safety net, but it also leads a lot of box ticking at the end of a campaign.
  • Pre-populated in-language templates should be developed for future crises, so there is no in-language delay. Even 8, 12 or 24 hours was too late during some parts of the COVID emergency throughout 2020 and 2021. In preparation for the next crisis – whether it be a bushfire, flood or another pandemic, a library of in-language messaging needs to be developed ready for dispatch along with the English messaging.
  • Direct translation of English campaign messages don’t work – there needs to be the commitment to allow for consideration and re-crafting of messaging, so that is makes sense to each community. This is called localising content.
  • Community channels are incredibly powerful for amplifying key government messages. Strong relationships need to be developed and maintained with community grant recipients. If the trust and incentive is there they can be hugely powerful untapped influencers within the community they serve (sorry Bec Judd!). 
  • Capacity building to help community organisations to build and engage with their cohort is super important and highly valuable. I am clearly passionate about this because Think HQ launched www.lumin.com.au back in 2017 (which is free to anyone btw). In my dream world, all government grants programs would have a communication capacity building component built it.

People to thank – so many

Undeniably, working in a crisis environment causes burnout. The relentlessness of the work, the unpredictability of the virus and the lack of an end in sight are all the factors I suspect contributed to the team feeling so stretched by the end of last year. 

So, I would very much like to thank all the people who worked with Think HQ – either directly or as a contractor, throughout this hugely challenging time. I hope everyone now has some balance back in their lives, and realises that while we won’t be talking about what we did at dinner parties any time soon, together we made a huge difference to the lives of Victorians – and for that, we should all feel proud. 

This piece is was originally published on Linkedin.

Jen Sharpe
Founder and Managing Director