Leading New Zealand’s digital response to the COVID-19 pandemic

New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has received praise from around the world. Alumna Katie Brown played an important part in that response as the Digital Communications Lead for Unite Against COVID-19.

In a webinar hosted by Professor Ian Williamson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Wellington School of Business and Government, Katie talked about the experience of leading the digital response and the importance of having an effective digital and social media strategy during a pandemic.

Katie, who has a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing and Management and an extensive background in digital marketing and communication, began work on the project just two weeks before the country found itself entering alert level 4—lockdown.

“It’s probably the lead-up to that day that was most clear in my mind,” said Katie. “I’d been working on the COVID-19 response from March 10 and at that point we had no cases. Then slowly we were starting to get a couple of cases in and at that point they set up the all of government response to COVID-19. So, a lot of time [in the lead up to lockdown] was spent getting the website up and running with all the information people needed, setting up the social media channels, and starting to build a bit of following there because we needed to be seen as the one source of truth.”

Setting up official social and digital channels early on was key in the response, helping ensure that New Zealanders knew which outlets to trust.

“Social media was such a pivotal channel for a lot of people, including a lot of disconnected people, and perhaps isolated people,” said Katie. “Our role in delivering messages to people and the channels that they used was so important.  I really felt that responsibility on my shoulders, but I also felt incredibly grateful to have that role in guiding New Zealand through.”

Of course, Katie wasn’t doing this on her own—she recruited a key team of talented people to work with her throughout lockdown and beyond. It was crucial her team could do high quality work, understood government, knew how to communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, and could work in a high-pressure environment.

“When I recruit in a team, I always think about how they work with each other,” said Katie. “We had strengths in all these different areas like crisis management, project management, brilliant writers, brilliant social media people, and we had a really good combo of all of those so really it was ‘The Avengers’ of social media in government.”

Being responsive and keeping the audience in mind, in this case all of New Zealand, were two of the keys to communicating effectively throughout lockdown and making sure the right messages were being disseminated.

“At the heart of it people just needed to know how to live safely at each level and they were looking to us to provide that information,” said Katie. “We tried to give them as much as we could.”

One of the methods Katie and her team used was to collate the themes of questions they would get each day and feed messages around those back into the main campaign.

“Those messages would go in every different channel we were in and they would answer the trending questions that were happening on our social channels. I really like to think of our platform as the voice for the public,” said Katie.

Another key aspect to the digital response was conveying complex and constantly changing information clearly and transparently.

“If you work in government and you work in digital you should know how to write in plain English,” said Katie. “There were also a couple of times where the policy changed on us as we were writing things…so if we made a mistake, we’d say sorry we made a mistake, here’s more information.”

This transparency was also crucial when dealing with fake news, such as conspiracy theories around 5G that are circulating on social media.

“Providing transparent information and data as soon as people asked for it really helps in that respect,” said Katie. “I think it also really helped to have a range of different experts who were able to contribute their scientific knowledge to that conversation.”

Ultimately though, the digital response was successful because it focused on making sure all New Zealanders felt supported to approach the challenge of COVID-19.

“We did a New Zealand response for New Zealand. We were deeply connected with what people in New Zealand needed,” said Katie. “While we looked overseas, our approach was very different because our culture is different…New Zealand was like ‘Nah, we’ve got this, we’re going to work together. Give us the information’ and so we delivered information that way.”