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Event Summary: Development Messaging in Times of Coronavirus

How can I keep my family safe? What are public institutions doing to tackle this crisis and prevent a second wave? As the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll, citizens around the world are asking tough questions, and SDG communicators need to provide answers.

To help communicators their “new normal” and learn from one another, the OECD DevCom Network has launched a series of virtual meetings called DevCom Zooms In. At our opening event on 26 May, we discussed what COVID-19 means for the way we frame messages about international development co-operation.

IN TIMES OF CORONA, COMMUNICATORS ARE BUSY!

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DevCom members have been busier than ever, providing health information and promoting safe practices among both external and internal audiences. With circumstances changing daily, they have had to be highly flexible, without neglecting their core task: telling audiences about the work of their organisations. Many members have done all of this in an unprecedented new work setting: at home.[1]

Yet, as our word cloud shows, members also see this as a time of opportunity. Many see the pandemic as a helpful entry point to explain why their organisations matter. Some report high levels of media interest. In her introduction, DevCom Co-Chair Mathilde Schneider (AFD) talked about a “strange new proximity” – despite distancing rules, the interconnections among us have never been more evident.

poll results copyParticipants reflected on how much we should be promoting development work during this global crisis. About 3 in 4 agreed that we should promote international development co-operation “more than usual” or even “more than ever”. A small number of members are more hesitant to talk about international co-operation when citizens face great challenges at home.

HOW SHOULD WE FRAME OUR MESSAGES?

Members shared insights that have helped guide their choice of frames.

1. People feel connected

Framing the pandemic as a shared global challenge has worked well with many audiences. DevCom members have used messages like “we will defeat Corona globally or not at all”, or “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. In new research on public attitudes in the UK, the Development Engagement Lab (DEL) finds that these kinds of message can track well.[2]

2. Science is back

In the context of COVID-19, members have observed a renewed hunger for scientific authority. Expert messengers like scientists and doctors have played well, as have messages on the collaborative search for vaccines and treatments. However, as one member stated, not all funding for vaccines counts as Official Development Assistance.

3. It’s not all about the money

Transparency around funding is obligatory. However, this does not mean that headline messages need to highlight large sums of money, which can easily be misunderstood or provoke audiences. The focus should be on the goals, results and effectiveness of funding efforts, not on “inputs”.

LOOKING AHEAD: ENGAGING CITIZENS TO REBUILD BETTER

Health issues remain on the front pages, but other themes will become very salient very soon, including the economic and social aftermath of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Participants shared perspectives on post-COVID communications.

1. Shift the narrative

COVID-19 is a further reminder that we need updated development narratives, based on partnership, community, solidarity and mutual interest. Traditional narratives that distinguish between “us” and “them”, “North” and “South” or “developed” and “developing” no longer reflect today’s greatest challenges. They can polarise, promote stereotypes and risk undermining long-term public support for international development co-operation.

2. Focus on inequality and vulnerability

COVID-19 has left people feeling vulnerable no matter where they live. Beyond the health impacts, we have witnessed unprecedented job losses and a worrying increase in domestic violence. We need to demonstrate how international development co-operation can tackle inequalities, both within and across countries. We need to show that development organisations are stable partners and will not leave the most vulnerable people behind.

3. Work with citizens as agents of change

In her closing remarks, DevCom Co-Chair Amalia Navarro (SEGIB) argued that we need a collaborative approach, moving from “storytelling” to “storydoing”, and providing citizens with the tools they need to help make a difference. One area in which this will be particularly relevant is in dealing with the climate crisis. The OECD is calling for a green and inclusive recovery.[3] For this to happen, we need all citizens and stakeholders engaged.


[1] For an overview of COVID-19 communications by DevCom members and partners, visit www.sdg-communicator.org/resources/coronavirus.

[2] For further advice and analysis on public attitude and framing, please visit the Development Compass, a new partnership between DevCom and the Development Engagement Lab: www.developmentcompass.org.

[3] Visit the OECD Digital Hub on COVID-19  for policy analysis, data and recommendations, and the OECD Development Matters blog for analysis on the impact of the pandemic on development.

We are organising further DevCom virtual events throughout 2020. If you want to get involved and share your own experiences, please email us at Dev.Com@oecd.org.

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