Can the public sector ever use humour in crisis communications?

While there is certainly nothing funny about what the world is going through right now with the COVID-19 crisis, the silver lining of this awful situation is that many of us – without the usual distractions of office life and embracing a new #workingfromhome model – have more spare time to consume and create content.

Newer social media channels such as TikTok, which received a record-breaking 113 million downloads in February, are booming. LinkedIn is jam-packed full of remote working tips and messages of hope penned by other like-minded professionals. It’s heartwarming to see the world coming together through the internet

One way the team here at ROI(ή) has been passing the time is by working on its marketing strategy and creating new content. Recently, our director Christos wrote about his Top 10 Tips for Working at Home. Similarly, I shared some lessons I’ve learned as a remote worker of several years. However, we think it’s equally important, to be sharing broader content at this time. Pieces that help us look ahead. Writing that inspires us, offers hope or simply makes us chuckle. And so, we come to our latest blog offering…

Can the public and third sector ever effectively use humour?

And, perhaps even more drastically, can humour and issues as serious as say, the Coronavirus outbreak, ever mix?

Most, initially, would answer with a resounding – No.

After all, humour and the public sector aren’t usually associated with one another.

When we consider government-funded comms, we usually think about serious public safety messages, informative pieces about the likes of recycling, or heartfelt appeals to residents to take care of their communities and get involved in charity efforts. Serious stuff to be delivered in a serious manner, right?

Surely though, this isn’t the only appropriate approach. Could a healthy dash of humour complement the other serious messages our governments and other publicly funded organisations are communicating? Furthermore, can humour ever work in a crisis situation to communicate issues which are quite literally life or death?

Case study - the NSW Police Force, Australia

One public sector organisation ‘Down Under’ would have us believe that humour and the public sector do in fact mix.

The NSW Australian Police is world-famous for using wit, sarcasm and humour to communicate important public safety messages to residents of the state, including those living in Sydney. As a result, the Force has a massive social media following (more than 1 million Facebook likes, for instance) and is working to breakdown the stigma between resident and police.

Not surprisingly then, the accounts receive incredible engagement. Every single status made by this clearly very proactive Australian public sector organisation is inundated with likes, comments and, perhaps most importantly, members of the public tagging their friends. Users may be interacting with these posts because of their humorous tone but nonetheless, they are sharing and positively engaging with vital social messages. Few would argue that this very modern social media strategy is a win for the ‘social good’.

Here is one example of the NSW Police Force’s humorous approach to communications:

Perhaps shockingly to some, the most recent example of humour within the NSW Police Force is about the Coronavirus. Check out the below example, a parody of Spice Girl’s hit ‘Stop’.

Here are a few more:

Now while we’re not suggesting that this very Millennial-focused approach to crisis comms is appropriate in all demographics, it’s certainly a compelling campaign that resonates loud and clear with Australian audiences.

Matthew Seeger, Professor of Communication at Wayne State University, in this article, says that: “Effective communication during a crisis involves persuading people to take harm-reducing actions” so, in the case of Covid-19, regularly handwashing and practising social distancing, for instance.

The NSW Police Force does just this, albeit in a very unconventional manner. Either way, it is communicating the exact same messages as, say, the Prime Minister would do in an official press conference broadcast on the TV. Very different methods, perhaps the same results. Who’s to say which strategy is more appropriate than the other, if the message is being received and results in meaningful resident behaviour change?

It’s food for thought.

Other third and public sector comms using humour


Lee Tobin, Marketing Expert

Lee is a professional storyteller. She uses a storybook approach to emotively communicate your organisation’s core messages to your target audience. She especially loves social media and believes that comms should always be bold.