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Covid-19: The Communication Pitfalls of Comparative Statistic

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

“But their numbers are better than yours!”

In a good recording system you take into account both confirmed and suspected cases,” said inter-federal Covid-19 spokesperson Steven Van Gucht of Friday 17 April. “That is good standard practice. Any system can overestimate or underestimate. That is inherent in a counting system,” he said, adding that Sciensano is “not concerned in the least with our international rankings.”

Have you noticed a lot of media attention being paid at present to comparing statistics of various countries to one another?

Whether it is the Covid-19 infection rate or unemployment rates of the take-up of contact tracing apps, it seems having the best statistics is a good thing.

But is it?

The problem with all but the simplest statistics is that they are so so complicated. Statistics can be affected by the sample size, the method of measurement, the confidence levels, the definitions being used and the list goes on.

Not only that, often comparisons are just not relevant to the objective at hand. Take for instance the current attention (obsession!?) with comparing infection rates from the pandemic. What does it really mean if France has more deaths than Spain? There are no meaningful conclusions to be drawn from such a comparison when the situation itself is so complicated.

This is an important lesson for all communicators, especially in a crisis:

It will often be tempting in a crisis to issue statistics to support your assertions regarding the situation – for example, to demonstrate your record on safety.

It pays to think twice before doing so. By introducing a statistic into the public dialogue on a crisis you are inviting commentators (whether they are professional journalists, bloggers or experts) to find statistics to compare to your statistics. There is a very good chance the statistics that are dredged up by others will not, in fact, be a fair comparison.

The problem is, once you have put a statistic out there, defending it against inaccurate comparisons is just a distraction and cannot be done in the kind of sound-bite that might have an impact in media or social media communications.

Currently governments around the world are right to be releasing as much data as they can on infection and mortality rates. That is a necessary part of the government’s role in managing the pandemic and its role of protecting the public interest. Sadly, some commentators are trying to turn it into a competition for the ‘best’ rates.

It is unusual for a corporate crisis to present the same kinds of demands for transparency in terms of data. One lesson from the current crisis is that statistics remain a minefield for communicators to be treated with the utmost caution.

Cathy Heeley is a Singapore-based associate with CS&A International. She has 15 years’ experience as a legal counsel working with a top tier Australian firm and 14 years’ experience working as an in-house legal counsel with Kraft Foods, Mondelez International, Croda and Syngenta covering Asia Pacific.

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