Communicating the Economy during a Recession

In 2020, Australia entered its first recession in nearly thirty years.

When this recession hit, many of Australia’s business leaders, politicians, and public servants were tasked with navigating a crisis they had never experienced. Australia’s current crop of decision-makers has been shielded from recession-era challenges.

Among those decision-makers are of course communications professionals. The new communications landscape in Australia has faced many challenges over the past two decades with the rise of a new technology landscape. However, navigating the complexity of a recession-era economy is a challenge we had not faced until this year.

This blog will explore the lessons we learned about recession-era communication in 2020.

  1. Focus on stories that reflect the human impact of the recession.

It is easy to assume that economic facts and figures are mere numbers on a computer screen, but those numbers reflect tangible impacts on peoples’ lives.

No one sheds a tear when they hear that unemployment rose from 5.1% to 7.5% from February to July. But when you hear that Lifeline’s suicide hotline received more calls in March 2020 than any month in its sixty-year history, suddenly the impact of a recession dawns on you.

As communicators, we need to talk about recessions in ways that reflect the lived experiences of Australians. The most effective messages are not always going to be laden with complex economic graphs and statistics. Sometimes, a story or an anecdote does the job.

  1. Tell people what they need to hear.

In a recession, it goes without saying that more Australians struggle financially. When peoples’ livelihoods and finances are under threat, it is difficult to think about anything else.

As communicators, we need to be selective in what we choose to communicate during a recession.

It is important that communicators are aware of what the public needs from us during a recession. Interaction with government services increases during a recession, so the public wants to know how and where to use those services. That, ultimately, is their number one priority.

  1. What is a recession, anyway?

Many Australians may be surprised to know that Australia did not enter a recession during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. In 2008, Australia only had one-quarter of negative economic growth.

When communicators use the ‘recession’ word, citizens need to understand what a recession actually is, and what it is not. It does not imply that the Australian economy is doomed for the next decade or even the next year. It does not even imply that there is something wrong with the foundations of the Australian economy.

Australians must also understand that determining an economic recession is not a matter of opinion. There is a clear definition of a recession. Therefore, when we are in a recession … we are really in one. There is no doubting it.

  1. Abnormal circumstances require abnormal responses.

Some economic policies that would be considered unthinkable during normal economic times may be perfectly reasonable during a recession.

It is not reasonable to judge economic policy based on policy during “normal times”. Recessions are far from normal times, yet many still expect normal policy. A responsibility of communicators should be to inform the public that unusual circumstances call for unusual responses.

However, it is also important to note that many recession-era policy responses are only acceptable during a recession. Whilst they can be justified through the lens of economic recovery, they should not persist when the economy has fully recovered. The public fear that they will persist post-recession can fuel opposition to otherwise essential economic responses.

Communicators can help to alleviate these concerns by recommending ‘expiry dates’ on certain policies. Policymakers may not see the justification behind strict expiry dates, but they perform an important communicative function.

  1. Communicating policy in real-time, with clarity

Government policy can change extremely quickly during a recession, so it is important that communicators are able to provide fast and clear updates.

For example, the changing rules around JobSeeker and the introduction of JobKeeper required public awareness of these programs in order for them to be effective. Communicators needed to know policy details such as: why these programs are being implemented, who is eligible for them, how long they will last, and how to access them.

Because government policy during a recession hinges on the public’s engagement with those policies, communications play a vital role during tough economic times. Even great policy is useless if the public does not know what it is, how it works, and where to find it.

Understanding these policy details ourselves is the easy bit. Making sure the public understands them is the hard part.  Using plain-English language and directing messages to the most relevant platforms are just two ways of ensuring the public understands important policies.

One area of improvement would be centralising information about the economic response to COVID-19. Typing ‘JobKeeper’ into Google comes up with websites from the ATO, Treasury, the Fair Work Ombudsman, Services Australia, business.gov.au, and legislation.gov.au. From the perspective of a citizen, it is difficult to know which one is relevant to them.

  1. Admitting mistakes, and moving on

Recessions can occur extremely quickly, so there is an inherent rush involved in deciding and implementing the economic policy during these times. Governments often have to craft policy in months, that should take years to decide.

A stressful and rushed decision-making process is more prone to having mistakes slip through the cracks. For example, it was announced in May that the JobKeeper program would cost $60 billion less than first estimated. Another example is the Home Insulation Program that caused the deaths of four workers during the response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

There is no doubt that we should strive for government policy to be absolutely perfect. Mistakes must be acknowledged, understood, and rectified. However, focusing solely on the isolated mistakes of government during a recession can cause further political division during an already difficult time.

Given the unique, stressful, and fast-moving nature of recessions, mistakes in policy will inevitably occur. As communicators, we must admit and learn from mistakes, whilst not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Admitting mistakes is essential. By not admitting mistakes, you open yourself up to the perception of untrustworthiness. By taking responsibility for mistakes, your audience will be more likely to recognise the good work you did during the recession. Communicators have an important role to play in admitting these mistakes, rectifying them, and moving on.

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