Yesterday, I held a Covid-19 webinar on crisis communications hosted by data insights company, Whispr Group. After the webinar, I was asked which nations I thought had done a good job communicating with their publics during the pandemic. So far during this crisis, I think that both Germany and France has communicated with authority, clarity, and empathy.
However, let’s address the elephant in the room — Sweden.
Sweden has chosen a rather unique route through this crisis so far. While the global consensus has been focused on various lockdown strategies, Sweden has taken an unorthodox stance by allowing its citizens to go about their daily lives — just as long as they don’t show any symptoms of the Covid-19 disease. And it’s safe to say that Sweden’s strategy hasn’t gone by unnoticed; several global news outlets have reported negatively on how Sweden’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The underlying question from the global community is this:
Is Sweden running a high-stakes socialist experiment and if so — on what grounds?
However, despite daily press conferences conducted by the expert authorities, this underlying question remains unanswered. A curious occurrence during these daily press conferences is one German journalist who has been patiently asking more or less the same critical question — day in and day out. Why is Sweden doing things differently?
Still, the expert authorities in Sweden argue that they’ve already answered this question. Sweden’s message is that we act solely on empirical evidence and daily assessments based on specific Swedish circumstances in combination with hard-learned lessons from historical outbreaks. As a nation, we’re in this for the long haul and we won’t exhaust our options or damage our economy more than what science warrants.
This is, obviously, a bitter message for the global community to swallow. Without being stated plainly, the Swedish message implies that most other nations are reacting politically rather than scientifically. As for any suggestion that Swedish authorities aren’t taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough, it’s almost as if such preposterousness shouldn’t even be dignified with an answer.
What then follows is an outright information war with the creative use of statistics on both sides. Some numbers seems to indicate that the Swedish strategy is working while other numbers are indicating the opposite. However, unless the virus breaks down any of the existing welfare systems in Sweden, the truth is that it might take years before we have a clear verdict on whether or not Sweden’s strategy worked out or not.
Some commenters have pointed out that Sweden is somewhat different from other severely affected countries. We don’t have any generational living to speak of, our levels of smoking and obesity is low, our welfare system is robust, our population density is low, our education levels are high, and social distancing is already a part of our culture. Plus, we tend to obey recommendations from our authorities. Still, these arguments have been largely nullified by the fact that our Nordic neighbours have undertaken more serious measures.
From a public relations perspective, the stakes are seemingly high. If Sweden’s strategy turns out to be successful, we will likely be admired for standing our ground throughout the crisis and thus improve our PR status. If the strategy turns out to be unsuccessful, our global status as a nation will plummet. As a public relations professional, I can only defend Sweden’s right to act in accordance with its convictions. I would never advise the government, nor the expert authorities, to abandon their core beliefs for short-term political gains. My job would only be to ensure that any communication activities are strengthening the chosen strategy.
However, no matter the factual correctness of the chosen strategy, several serious PR mistakes are continuously being made on Sweden’s behalf:
1. Safeguard international relations. Sweden’s economy is heavily dependent on our relationships with other nations and we must therefore ensure that the global community fully understands and respects our strategy. Taking a different approach makes messaging a challenge, but this challenge is in no way impossible to conquer. At this moment, our current messaging to the rest of world can only be described as passive-aggressive, which is unacceptable.
2. Acknowledge rational critique. Despite daily press conferences, the expert authorities are continuously refusing to acknowledge criticism. Any critical questioning are being treated as alarmist propaganda, fear-mongering, and non-scientific populism. Expert spokespeople must realise that it’s possible to be steadfast and humble at the same time. And even if everyone else is plain wrong and just acting out politically, fear never goes away by being swept under the mat with a shrug.
3. Acknowledge responsibility. While the Swedish government has chosen to symbolically hand over all responsibility to the appropriate expert authorities, who in turn have handed over all responsibility onto local regions, the top level of government must acknowledge that they are still solely responsible for the outcome. A crisis calls for leaders to lead, especially in times when the political opposition are toning themselves down for the good of the nation.