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Communication channels, trust and messaging about COVID-19: Experiences of populations in three key European countries, UK, Italy and Spain

Working with colleagues at IULM University Centre for Strategic Communication, Milan, Italy, and Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid, Spain, we explore the effectiveness of, and trust in, communication during the COVID-19 crisis. 
Published on 11 Jun 2020

In three parallel online surveys conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in Spain, Italy and the UK, we assess how information forms and sources influence the public’s information-seeking behaviours, and the perception of each government’s crisis response strategies during the pandemic.

Key findings:

  • TV, social media and online newspapers are key sources of information about COVID-19 across the UK, Spain and Italy
  • Spanish respondents reported that government communication was the most reliable source of information
  • Trust in government communication was lowest amongst respondents from the UK and Italy
  • Key messages about physical distancing and handwashing were retained by most respondents across all three countries
  • Most UK respondents reported that the Government policies had been implemented too late

Media use for COVID-19 information

In the context of crises, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, the media play a crucial role in the public awareness of risks. Findings from all three surveys show a synchronous use of multiple media and platforms (see Figure 1) in line with channel complementarity theory and supporting research that suggests there is an increase in media consumption during emergencies. TV was a key source of information for most respondents, supporting previous research suggesting it is an ideal medium for sharing instructional messages during crises. Online newspapers and social media were also important sources of information, especially for respondents from the UK reflecting a growing reliance on the internet.

Figure 1. Summary of the sources of information about COVID-19 from Spain, Italy and the UK

Evaluation of the government’s communicative management of the COVID-19 crisis 

The role of governments, public agencies, and expert sources in communicating key information is central to how people anticipate, understand, prepare for, and respond to an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst over a third of Spanish respondents reported that government communication was the most reliable source of information, most respondents from the UK reported that government communication was not reliable. Many respondents from all three countries reported that government communication was confusing and had caused social alarm. 

Trust in information sources 

Pandemic preparedness is based on trust in the information, trust in the sources, and particularly trust in public authorities. Whilst respondents from Spain reported a high level of trust in government communication, results show low trust in government communication amongst respondents from the UK, reflecting the recent decline in government across Europe. Despite the high consumption of information, respondents from the UK, Spain and Italy reported low trust in media overall. Trust in information shared by health influencers and alternative health influencers on social media was lowest across respondents from all three countries. In contrast, health staff and health organisations were highly trusted by respondents from all three countries. 

What messages do citizens remember from the communication campaigns? 

In line with key messages shared by governments in Spain, Italy and the UK, the importance of maintaining physical distancing and hand washing to prevent the virus from spreading were retained by most respondents. The increased risk for the elderly and those with underlying conditions were also retained. Unlike those from Italy and Spain, many respondents from the UK were confused about when and where to go for help. 

What’s next? 

We are continuing to work with our Spanish and Italian colleagues to comparatively analyse the findings and explore results by demographic groups (age, gender, income and education level). These comparisons will enable us to understand how the communicative management of the COVID-19 crisis has been perceived in three European countries. We are also in the process of disseminating the research in academic and practice journals, which we hope will enable institutions - including government communicators - to learn from this pandemic to improve their communicative management in future crises.  

Professor Ralph Tench

Director of Research / Leeds Business School

Professor Tench is the Director of Research for Leeds Business School and the elected President and Head of the Board of Directors for the European Public Relations Research and Education Association (EUPRERA). EUPRERA is the leading academic association for public relations and strategic communication.

Gemma Bridge

Gemma Bridge is a Research Evidence Impact Officer for Leeds Business School and is in the final stages of her PhD at Leeds Beckett.

Her PhD research explores the factors that influenced the development and implementation of the UK’s Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL), focussing on the strategies used to advocate for the policy. 

She is currently involved in a range of research multi-disciplinary projects. For example, in collaboration with Professor Ralph Tench and an external colleague she is exploring publication decisions amongst public relations academics, she is working with the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) to investigate the sugar content of children’s food products, and she is working with colleagues in the School of Sport to explore the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical activity and health. 

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