Public health campaigns can be ruined by the personal conduct of politicians

·6 min read
<span class="caption">When the messenger is distrusted, adherence to public health advice fails. Anti-mask protesters hold signs during a demonstration against measures taken by public health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 in St. Thomas, Ont., in November 2020. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source"> THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins </span></span>
When the messenger is distrusted, adherence to public health advice fails. Anti-mask protesters hold signs during a demonstration against measures taken by public health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 in St. Thomas, Ont., in November 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Robins

When politicians fail to adhere to public health directives, it can decrease confidence in a government’s capacity to manage a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This phenomenon was identified in the United Kingdom as the Cummings Effect after a politician who flouted COVID-19 regulations, and our research shows it is also at play in Canada. It’s particularly relevant right now as Canadians contemplate whose COVID-19 performance they have the most confidence in heading towards the Sept. 20 election.

In early 2021, Canadians were outraged by a scandal, dubbed “alohagate” in Alberta, that involved 16 politicians travelling abroad at the height of the pandemic. This was despite public health messages to “flatten the curve” by avoiding holiday travel — even family dinners — and in violation of federal restrictions against non-essential international travel.

While the greatest number of politicians who travelled were from Alberta, members from other provinces also went on trips. Canadian fury over their behaviour made international news. While fear of spreading COVID-19 was a concern, the main frustration was the double standard of political leaders failing to make the same personal sacrifices they were demanding of their constituents.

Canadian outrage was exacerbated by the pre-recorded holiday solidarity messages of several politicians.

These messages of “we’re all in this together” were broadcast nationally while in reality, politicians were enjoying tropical vacations. When the news emerged, Canadians felt betrayed. Their outrage deepened when one political leader — Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta — initially offered excuses for his colleagues. He was the only political party leader who didn’t immediately sanction those who’d travelled.

British politician broke the rules

Just a few months before, in the spring of 2020, a similar situation occurred in the U.K. and the Cummings Effect was born. It’s in reference to Dominic Cummings, then the chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

A bald man in a black coat and red scarf walks with his head down.
A bald man in a black coat and red scarf walks with his head down.

Cummings and his wife — both exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 — travelled 250 kilometres north of London in May 2020, breaking federal lockdown guidance. Cummings tried to disguise where he was and Johnson initially offered excuses for Cummings. The British public was furious, and the result was a dramatic decrease in confidence in the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic.

Alberta surveys

We compared data from two surveys of Alberta residents — one conducted in August 2020 (the end of the first wave) and the other conducted in March 2021 (the end of the second wave).

Using consistent questions, we probed Albertans’ trust in various leaders’ ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing federal and provincial political party leaders and chief medical officers of health. We found that trust in health officers remained higher than trust in politicians, and trust in all political leaders decreased over time. But trust in Kenney decreased the most, by almost 10 per cent, with minor erosion of trust in Alberta’s chief medical officer.

A graph shows percentage of Albertans who had no or little trust.
Percentage of Albertans who reported no or little trust in government officials during COVID-19. (Authors' calculations), Author provided

Looking into the likelihood that someone would be irritated by the travel behaviour of politicians, we used a statistical test to determine that gender and age made no difference: women and men were both more likely to report “lower confidence.”

Even older people who might be considered Kenney voters were more likely to report lower confidence in early 2021, when news of the holiday travel broke. There were some differences between urban and rural dwellers, but in general, people lost confidence after the 2020 the holiday season.

To help confirm the loss in confidence was related to the holiday travel scandal, we used Google Trends data to search for interest in the names of the politicians who were caught travelling. We indeed found dramatic and unusual interest in those specific individuals, spiking in the early days of January 2021, when the scandal was peaking.

A line graph shows spikes in Google searches on the names of Alberta politicians.
The spikes in Google searches on the names of Alberta politicians embroiled in a holiday travel scandal. (Authors' calculations), Author provided

Theory of social norms

Why is this relevant to public health? Because human beings are social animals; our individual behaviours are affected by the things we see others in our group doing. Sociologists describe this as the theory of social norms: the more common a behaviour, the more easily it is accepted.

We’re good at defining a certain behaviour as appropriate for a certain social setting. Public health protections lean on normalizing particular behaviours, such as hand hygiene, mask-wearing, social distancing and self-isolation.

Read more: Facts, fears and the evolution of masking throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

Receptiveness and adherence to public health messages, especially those advocating for new behaviours, are usually understood as an equation — trust in public health advice relies on trust in the messenger. When the messenger is distrusted, adherence to public health advice fails.

What this means for people designing public health messages is that in addition to the content of the message (it should be accurate, clear, simple) and its style (it should be in the language and medium used by the intended audience), the messengers themselves have a big impact.

The pandemic is a health and economic crisis. Canadians have been receiving highly expert advice. But we live in an era of generalized distrust in politicians and in a society that promotes personal responsibility for individual health. So does the public really notice whether politicians follow the same standards as the rest of us, rather than their own personal standards?

Holding politicians to a high standard

Our research overwhelmingly says yes. Only 1.5 per cent of the people surveyed thought that politicians should be allowed to apply their own personal standards. More than 60 per cent said politicians should adhere to higher standards.

A graph shows how survey respondents expect public officials to conduct themselves.
How survey respondents expect public officials to conduct themselves during the pandemic. (Authors' calculations), Author provided

Our analysis of the change in confidence after the holiday travel scandals shows that those who believe politicians need to be held to a higher standard — including those on both the left and right of the political spectrum — are more likely to report “low confidence” in public officials during the COVID-19 crisis.

The conclusions we draw from the research are twofold.

First, the Cummings Effect is something public servants should guard against. Our research shows a similar pattern of trust loss in governments after a political figure fails to model best behaviours.

Second, when a messenger loses the trust of the audience, the impact can be severe, not only for the public health response but, in the case of politicians, for their political careers as well.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Yang Yang, University of Saskatchewan; Heather E. Young-Leslie, University of Alberta; Kirsten Samson, University of Saskatchewan, and Tanya Park, University of Alberta.

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Yang Yang is affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan.

Heather E. Young-Leslie is affiliated with University of Alberta.

Tanya Park receives funding from University of Alberta, Faculty of Nursing, and Alberta Health Strategic Clinical Network for Mental Health and Addictions.

Kirsten Samson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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