Season 1

Ep 2: Flatten The Curve

Dissecting the comms campaign that changed the world

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How do you get every single person on the entire planet to change their behavior? And what do you do when the stakes are life and death? Sounds impossible, right? Maybe. Or maybe not. One global communications campaign came close with just a GIF and three little words: Flatten the curve. 

In this episode of Infernal Communication, host Kyla Sims sits down with microbiologist and science communicator Dr. Siouxsie Wiles to talk about arguably the most successful communication campaign of our generation. Together Kyla and Dr. Wiles walk us through the journey of collaborating with award-winning illustrator Toby Morris to make "flatten the curve" go viral and potentially saving millions of lives, to the aftermath and fallout.

Our Guests

Dr Siouxsie Wiles MNZM

Microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Auckland

Dr Siouxsie Wiles MNZM studied medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a PhD in microbiology at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford and Edinburgh Napier University. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Auckland. There she heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab where she and her team make nasty bacteria glow in the dark to find new antibiotics and to better understand how bacteria become more infectious. Siouxsie has won numerous awards for both her science and her science communication, including the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Science and Science Communication Prizes. In 2017 she published her first book, ‘Antibiotic resistance: the end of modern medicine?’ and in 2019 was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to microbiology and science communication. When the pandemic arrived, Siouxsie joined forces with Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris to make the science of COVID-19 clear and understandable. Their award-winning graphics have been translated into multiple languages and adapted by various governments and organisations around the world. Siouxsie was the Supreme Winner of the Stuff Westpac 2020 Women of Influence Award, named by the BBC as one of their 100 influential women of 2020, and in 2021 was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

Twitter: @SIouxsieW

Toby Morris

Creative director, The Spinoff

Toby Morris is an Auckland based cartoonist, illustrator and writer best known for non-fiction comics that investigate political and social issues. He produces the monthly comic series The Side Eye, published by The Spinoff, and is a four time winner Best Artwork/Graphics; at the New Zealand media awards, and Cartoonist of the Year; winner for 2019 and 2020. He has written and illustrated several kids books and three graphic novels, including 2019's Te Tiriti O Waitangi.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic he has colloborated with Dr Siouxsie Wiles, producing graphics that have been viewed millions of times around the world, and he is now producing graphics and animated videos for the World Health Organisation. In 2022 he won The Prime Minister's Prize for Science Communication.

Twitter: @xtotl
Instagram: @xtotl


Toby Morris: So many of the times, I mean I get briefs from people that have got something they need communicated and they say to them, "What's the most important bit?" And, they say,  “Well, this is the most important bit and this and this and make sure you mention this and also this and can't forget about this and you've also got to make this point too."

Kyla Sims: I'm Kyla Sims, the host of this podcast, Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staff Base. In this show, we take an inquisitive look into the triumphs, fumbles, and chaotic clockwork of internal communications. In today's episode, we're going to talk about the most successful worldwide communications campaign that has happened in our lifetimes. The thing is, when this movement started, none of us were paying attention to its tactics or CTAs. We were sort of busy with a global pandemic.

While most of us were scrambling to buy toilet paper, setting up our parents with Zoom and Googling DIY hand sanitizer kits, we were also being targeted by this extremely effective campaign. Nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn't heard these three words, flatten the curve. So, what can we learn from the most successful communications campaign of our generation? What was it about these three little words that had the whole world aligned under a common cause, when so much was at stake? And, how do we convince every single person to take action when the stakes could mean life or death?

How does that sound guys? Can you introduce yourself?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, I'm Dr. Siouxsie Wiles. I'm a microbiologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Kyla Sims: Dr. Siouxsie Wiles is all too familiar with these kinds of stakes, and her story isn't just about getting a handful of people to take action, Siouxsie had to convince the entire world.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Yeah, and a science communicator I guess is my other hat that I wear.

Kyla Sims: And, you're one of the brains behind the phrase flatten the curve.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Well, no, I'm not a brain behind it, but I am one of the reasons why it went viral. I guess. Apologies.

Kyla Sims: Do you remember where you were when you first learned about COVID-19?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles:

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Yes, I was on holiday in the UK with my daughter. And, so as an infectious diseases kind of nut, I obviously follow things like outbreaks around the world. And, so I remember getting alerts about this new virus in China and thinking, " Oh, what's this?" And, then I came back to New Zealand in mid- January and within a couple of days my phone was ringing journalists asking, " Tell us about this new virus." And, I was, " Okay, yes, I should go and start looking into that."

I've played this role during the Zika outbreak. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We've had our own little microbiology crises in New Zealand, so I'm somebody who's just on many journalists' phone. And, so when my phone started ringing, I just thought, " Oh, here we go." This is the kind of usual thing people will ask me what's going on and then really a couple of weeks later, it had just completely exploded.

Clip 1: Continue to have new cases as of this morning. Now, the question is what are we going to do about that?

Kyla Sims: Everyone was trying to take control of a situation that felt like it was quickly getting out of hand. But for scientists like Dr. Suzy Wiles, a global pandemic was something they'd had on the radar for a while.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Oh yes. So, one of the really cool things I was asked to do back in 2005 was to be the MC for an event about pandemics. So, where I live in New Zealand, we are known traditionally as having two large islands, but actually we're an archipelago. We've got lots of islands and one of which is called Great Barrier. And, the population of Great Barrier are very self- sufficient and some of the people there organized this event called Pandemic. And, what they wanted to talk about was what would happen if there was a pandemic and Great Barrier island was the last place where there was no disease.

They brought together a virologist, a science fiction writer, somebody from civil defense and a professor of disaster management. There were sort of really flippant questions like, " What do we do with all the bodies?" And all that kind of stuff, which now just feels really like, Oh. But, the thing that the professor of disaster management talked a lot about was in his work, he studies communities that have experienced earthquakes and volcanoes and all these kinds of things. The communities that come out of those disasters, the best are those that work together. That think about the collective good that don't leave people behind. And, that really stuck with me.

Kyla Sims: Watching how the community in their experiment came together in a crisis and the vital role that communication played were all crucial learnings for the real life test that the entire role would take just a few years later.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Things were kicking off in Italy. China was building new hospitals in a matter of days. I mean, it escalated so fast. And, so I guess it was in those few days where it became, " Oh, right, okay, this is not something we've seen before." So. My job is to help people understand this. I remembered what he said about that we've got to remain calm and we've got to think about everybody and we've got to act collectively. That was just the thing that I wanted to try and get everybody to understand. Have a plan, talk about your plan with others. Talk to your neighbors. Do they have a plan? How can you help them? Check in on those who might be living alone? Because we'll get through this together.

Kyla Sims: Find the curve became common parlance in the unfolding of the global COVID- 19 pandemic.

Clip 1: You've heard public health officials and myself say many times that we need to flatten the curve.

Clip 2: If you look at the curves, what we need to do is flatten that down.

Clip 3: It is flattening the curve and we see-

Kyla Sims: It caught on early in an effort to mitigate the spread of the new virus, as scientists and governments were horridly, trying to get good information and communicate that information to the public all while grappling with what an emergency of this size could mean for the planet if we couldn't get it under control. So, can you take us through how flatten the curve was actually created or that I guess the memification of that?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, I was basically writing a lot about how things were changing, what were the things that people needed to see. And, I saw the flatten the curve concept being shared on Twitter by Drew Harris. And, so when I saw that tweet of Drew's that had this graph on it that just showed if we put measures in place, we can lower the number of cases at any one time and that can keep it within our ability to look after people. I thought everybody can do something with that, so we need to talk about this message. But, what really struck me about the graphic was that it appealed to me as a scientist and I understood it, but it didn't really quickly give you that message. And, so I thought actually it would be great to do a different version of this, that people would get that message.

Kyla Sims: So, to make this message come to life, you needed a little backup?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Oh, absolutely. You need someone who's an expert in visual communication. And, so that's when I started collaborating with Toby Morris because he was the person I thought, " He is genius at that. I wonder if he'd be interested?"

Kyla Sims: Hello?

Toby Morris: Can you hear me?

Kyla Sims: Hey Toby. Thanks for chatting with us.

Toby Morris: Yeah.

Kyla Sims: So, you're the designer that teamed up with Dr. Siouxsie Wiles on the flatten the curve project. Take us through where things began on your side.

Toby Morris: I guess like everybody sort of early 2020, you started to see things bubbling up in the news about this virus overseas.

Clip 4: Government officials report the virus is not-

Toby Morris: We went camping the weekend that the first COVID cases came into New Zealand. Beautiful, idyllic, it's the middle of summer where the kids are out swimming and I'm just sort of lazing under a tree and I turn my phone on and see that some COVID cases have come into New Zealand. And, just that sense of this was going to be something that could be quite a big deal.

I worked for a website called the Spinoff. We were also publishing Siouxsie Wiles. To me, she was one of the best science communicators that we have in New Zealand. So, I was already working from home by that stage. I was sitting here where I am right now in my garage, little studio in my garage, and I got a call from my editor, Toby Manhire called me up and said, " Hey, Siouxsie's really keen to work with you. She's got an illustration that she needs for one of her pieces that she's writing for us." But, it was just one of those things where it's like, if Siouxsie needs a hand, yep, sign me up.

Kyla Sims: Between Toby's illustrative and design mastery and Siouxsie's command of all things science, the pair made a great team.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, having never met him before, but I'd long admired his work, I just sort of asked my editor at The Spinoff, " Would Toby be interested?" And, within an hour we were on the phone together.

Toby Morris: As soon as we're on the phone together, she's talking me through this thing that she wants.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, the first idea was that it would be a GIF and it would toggle between the two curves.

Toby Morris: One is a sort steep curve that sort of rises higher and falls quicker.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: When we did nothing.

Toby Morris: One is a longer flattened out curve.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: When we did something.

Toby Morris: Basically hospital capacity. Like that if we get over a certain point at the hospitals, that's when we're really going to be screwed.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: I also remember saying to him, " It would be really cool if we could have this panel underneath that had a person that reflected those two kind of attitudes."

Toby Morris: And, while we're talking on the phone, I have a pencil and a pad in front of me and I'm sort of doodling diagrams and I basically draw it on a little scrap of paper. So yeah, we get off the phone, it seemed like the kind of thing that the scale of what was going on, being important to make this as fast as possible. I was quite excited by the idea and quite excited to be working with Siouxsie. I sketch out the graph first and then the first challenge I guess is thinking about who these two characters are. I don't want them to both be men and I don't want them to be both be women, but which one, one is kind of like the person who's a bit in denial and the other person who's taking action, which some people got upset about later on making the man be the sort of stubborn one and the woman be the one who's taking some initiative.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: And, I realize now, actually that was really hard and there were lots of decisions that he made.

Toby Morris: And, I guess another challenge was trying to figure out the colors of it. The original academic diagram version that Suzy had shown me had the two different curves. One was red and one was blue. I've drawn political cartoons long enough to know that labeling one thing red and one thing blue is generally reads as a political decision that those colors are quite loaded in terms of politics. In New Zealand, there's also the yellow party and the green party and the purple party so there's a few colors that are sort of ruled out. So, I have to try and figure out two colors that are not going to come across as I'm saying, this is party's approach or this type of person's approach. So, ended up with slightly unusual kind of orange and teal color combo and emailed it to her and say, " Is this what you mean?"

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: It was just perfect.

Toby Morris: Yes, the very enthusiastic like.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Just the fact that he'd put this little hospital where above the line where it was talking about healthcare capacity, it was just genius. And, I guess that's Toby's thing as a visual communicator is how can you really visually show what it is that you're trying to show?

Toby Morris: It's one of those things that just sort of fell into place. And, I watched an interview yesterday with a musician who was talking about this song just fell into my lap or something. Siouxsie and I have talked about that a few times since, is the result of both of us sort of years of experience of trying to work out how to communicate clearly and being sort of ready for that moment, I guess that the microphone gets handed to you and you know what to say.

Kyla Sims: And, then it was time to put their creation out into the world. What happened next? How did you get the first GIF out there and who picked it up?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Actually, so there was one step before that, which was me saying to Toby, " Can we release it under a Creative Commons license?" And, this was because I felt if this was useful to people, I wanted people to have the ability to adapt it and change it. And, what I was really thinking was translating it so that it was accessible in languages other than English. So, these are licenses that explicitly state people can do something with the work. And, we shared it under a license that specifically said, " Change it. Do whatever you like, but you have to credit us in your new version." So, that's what we did and we put those little things on there. All I did really was write a piece for the spinoff about it, which we embedded that graphic in. And, then we tweeted it and it went a bit wild.

Kyla Sims: Spreading all over social media.

Toby Morris: And, immediately my phone started blowing up with everybody sending me screenshots saying, " Mate, did you see this? Oh, Ryan Reynolds shared it" or something. Some weird celebrity.

Kyla Sims: Major news outlets around the world eagerly snatched it up.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Then it just goes everywhere. And, we ended up being featured in all sorts of different places.

Toby Morris: The Wall Street Journal put it in an article, or I think Obama shared it.

Kyla Sims: The New Zealand Prime Minister adopted it like a new national slogan.

Toby Morris: The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern printed it off and held it up in this national press conference.

Jacinda Ardern: I needed to make the space we need as a nation to prepare, manage the spread, and as I said, flatten the curve.

Toby Morris: It felt like the whole country was watching.

Kyla Sims: And, other communicators slapped together their own versions of this infamous shift. What was flatten and the curve doing in the real world?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, I guess it was helping people understand that their actions had consequences in a good way in that if we did things, that we could actually slow the virus down.

Kyla Sims: How does it feel knowing that those three little words may have saved thousands of lives?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: It's a bit overwhelming, I guess.

Toby Morris: So, I guess there's a sense of pride of being able to contribute in some kind of way. In terms of talking about saving lives or changing people's attitudes, that part is, I find harder to get my head around. That's a really, feels very weird. It's kind of surreal really.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: We've since gone on and done lots of other things and people tell me all the time that when they've seen our illustrations from flatten the curve to others, that it has saved lives.

Toby Morris: And, that's both very flattering but also sort of daunting.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: You never know, how do you answer that? What do you say in response? You're welcome? I don't know. I think how it makes me feel is, that's amazing and it's such a privilege to have been involved in that and I'm grateful that I was able to help in some way. But, I guess what we were coming to realize in New Zealand was that actually slowing it down wasn't good enough. And, so it would be much better if we could try and stop it all together. And, I guess I wonder whether if more of the public around the world had understood what that message was, whether it would've changed anything, probably not, but it is something I wonder about.

Kyla Sims: You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staff Base where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest comms problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show so far, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen from. You can also check out the show on our website by going to InfernalCommunication. com. Don't forget to rate and review and subscribe and smash the like button and tweet about it and call your mom and tell her about it. Most importantly, let us know what you think. Let's keep the conversation going.

As you heard, flatten the curve had massive appeal. Translating a complex epidemiological idea into a three word catchphrase with a GIF, helped the masses understand what they needed to do to help keep themselves and their communities safe. With the mass adoption of the flatten the curve message and mentality, medical systems had a fighting chance to keep up with COVID hospitalizations, all while scientists and researchers scrambled to create a vaccine. That clear, succinct, and engaging visual message was literally saving lives. But, for Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, pride was very quickly replaced with regret. You had flattened the curve, but this phrase was something that you later regretted. Can you tell us more about that?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Yeah, so the whole idea about flatten the curve is that we take action to slow down the spread of the disease, but we are not actually stopping it. So, you're just trying to keep the ability to deal with it within your ability to deal with it rather than allowing it to overwhelm, whether it's healthcare systems, people, whatever. But, obviously there was another way to deal with it, which is actually to try and stop it. And, so that's why we ended up doing another graphic just a few days later. We redid the graphic so that it now had three scenarios and we moved from having just the panel at the bottom that had the people, we had just one person. We moved to it being about a collective response.

The first panel was basically the idea that if you did nothing, everybody was just, yeah, whatever. It would be overwhelming. The second one showed actually, if we had this really strong collective response, we could stamp out the cases completely. And, then the third panel was, but if you took your foot off the break too soon, the cases would just come back again. We showed a wave. If you took those collective actions away too quickly, then it would come back. And, it's been really depressing to see those waves become wave after wave after wave. It was right there. And, we knew about that in February, 2020. At least the epidemiologists did.

Kyla Sims: Though an effective message in its own right, it failed to take off like flatten the curve did. With flatten the curve, there is this sense that life will eventually sort of go on and it's... You'll have to just manage it.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Well, I think that what we were hoping was that that science would come to the rescue. That the longer you manage the outbreak using public health measures like contact tracing, isolation of people who are infected, masks everything you can to try and stop transmission. It buys time for things like effective vaccines for better drugs. And, that's exactly what happened. And, within a year, I mean, it's amazing. We had several vaccine candidates in trials and then ready to use in people. If we'd use the vaccines well, globally, on top of all the other measures that we know, stop transmission, we could have probably got this under control. But, we lost that window of time because vaccines, not enough of them were made or distributed around the world.

So, capitalism got in the way and human nature got in the way. That gave time also for people who have always taken advantage of people to sell their own products or whatever, they all just pivoted to using COVID 19 as the way to make money. And, so they started to spread their messages of disinformation, making people nervous about the vaccines. And, the two things we need to do now is how do we deal with misinformation and disinformation? And, how do we ensure that capitalism does not stop an effective vaccine being made available to everybody in the world who needs it?

Kyla Sims: Creating a successful or viral message is like catching lightning in a bottle, nearly impossible. And, even harder to do twice. Despite that, Toby and Dr. Wiles have quickly become the dream team of impactful communication by creating engaging, shareable messages that really resonate, which takes me to another uncomfortable side of communicating in our digital age.

I actually want to dive a little bit more into the topic of misinformation. The challenge of misinformation was particularly exacerbated by the pandemic, and it was a hot topic prior to 2020, but I think most people could agree that the pandemic really took it to a whole new level and it was really disorienting. I imagine you've run into a lot of well intentioned or not pieces of misinformation. So, how has dealing with misinformation played a role or changed your role now?

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: So, that's a great question actually. So, the research around vaccination and how you get people who are hesitant about getting vaccinated, how they end up changing their minds has been really clear for a long time. That people change their minds based on talking to people who they love and trust and respect. And, so there's this idea of trusted voices. So, within every community there are people that, that community trust. And, so what that community needs, is for those trusted voices to have the correct and appropriate information and for them to be able to package that information in a way that fits their community. That's embedded within what that community believes, how they take information, that kind of thing. And, so really the job of people like me is to help those people and empower those people to provide the information to the people in their community.

And, I think we've had far too much of, " The scientists know everything and they're the kind of font of all knowledge, and you have to listen to them." And, actually there are many communities who don't trust scientists, who don't trust governments, some of them for really good reason. And, so that's why I think it's really important that in many cases we step aside. The other really crucial thing is we also know that trying to debunk myths and trying to debunk disinformation, and it can really badly fail. People will just remember the wrong thing rather than the right thing. And, so actually what we need is to be putting out good information that doesn't even address, that isn't repeating the false stuff, but we also need people to understand why they're seeing the things that they're seeing.

 People need to understand how social media companies work. How their algorithms work against us. They need to understand who's creating fake information and why. That's what's really changed for me, is the working with trusted voices and trying to explain to people, " Actually, I'm not going to debunk that stuff. I'm going to point you into the direction of some really good resources around how fake information spreads and why people are spreading it."

Kyla Sims: While you were talking about that, I couldn't help but think of the connection between where you have these huge online communities and they exist and they're communities and there are trusted voices in those communities, whether they're worthy of our trust or not, and how it just seems like that's an incredible way that misinformation spreads almost more quickly than good information.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Absolutely right. One of the things that Toby and I did was put out a graphic that was talking a little bit about what are the red flags. What will help you determine whether the trusted voice in your community is actually not a trusted voice? You might trust them, but they actually don't have your best interests at heart. And. I've had many people say, " Well, why would I trust you?" And, I guess my response to that has always been, " I'm going to be open and transparent with you. I'm going to tell you and not just tell you, I'm going to show you what I care about and I want you to listen and see that. And, I want you to ask those same questions of the people that you are trusting."

Those trusted voices in those communities, the bad ones, the ones with an agenda, they are calling for people like me to be prosecuted and executed. That tells you something. They're yelling about freedom while trying to stop most people's freedom. So, I think that's what we need to get people to understand is what are people's values that you are trusting? And, I think what we need to be doing now more as communicators is starting to embed this kind of, here's actually how information spreads, here's what makes it spread really far and really wide.

Kyla Sims: And, it sounds like that's probably your big piece of advice, but I'm just curious if you have any other advice for comms professionals out there who are trying to craft effective messaging that catches on and also moves people to act.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: I'm still not really sure what makes a message go viral? I think it is things that do make people feel empowered and that do give really clear this is what you can do. Because, the other one of our graphics that went viral, and this one really went way more successful than flatten the coat, but people probably don't know it, was one that we did that showed exponential spread. So, it showed transmission chains showed how one person, it's just a little dot and then lines connecting and how these lines grow and grow. But, what we did was we had an alternate version of that where we showed how transmission chains could be stopped by people's actions. And, it reflected what New Zealand was doing at the time. This was back in March, 2020 where it was " Don't go to that barbecue, don't do this," that our actions mattered.

And, that one ended up being picked up and being incorporated into comms by governments, by organizations. They completely, they changed the coloring and they made it their own. But again, what that one did was it illustrated a concept, but it gave people actions. I think my last little bit of advice for comms people would be collaboration. You know, what Toby and I did together? Just it produced things that was greater than the sum of its parts. Me as a scientist working with an expert in visual communication has produced some really amazing work. And, so I think that we should never underestimate the power of collaboration and working with people who very much see information and process information in different ways. I think that's really... That amazing things can happen.

Kyla Sims: Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you. I'm honored to have you. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles: Thank you for having me. And yeah, what a wild ride it's been.

Kyla Sims: This conversation with Dr. Siouxsie and Toby made me realize how they basically achieved the damn near impossible. They were able to craft the right message for the right medium at the right time and get it out to a world that desperately needed it. So, what can we learn from their successes, their trials, and even their regrets? For me, what really resonated was the importance of becoming that trusted voice in our employee community. In order for our messages to stick and our CTAs to inspire action, people need to trust who they're coming from. It also made me wonder who is my Toby? Who helps elevate my work? Because, collaboration really was the secret sauce that turned something simple into something that the entire world could understand and relate to. So, who are the talented people we can collaborate with symbiotically to lift each other up?

Today, our guests were Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, microbiologist and science communicator, as well as her partner in crime, Toby Morris, illustrator and recipient of the Prime Minister's Science Communication Award. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by staff Base with production support from JAR Audio. Today we talked about a message going viral during, well, a literal virus, so join us for our next episode where we look at the hyper competitive world of pushing for internet virality, but more importantly, how virality might just push back in your face.

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