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Blog post
July 28, 2021

Sydney’s latest outbreak highlights communications gap with multicultural communities

The surge in COVID-19 cases in South-western Sydney has brought to the fore the difficulties that government and private organisations have in communicating with culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Not for the first time, in this period of rapid daily, and sometimes hourly change, non-English speaking communities have been left behind in conversations about restrictions, government support and health information. One of the many things that COVID-19 has highlighted is the importance of co-operation and a community-wide effort, and that requires effective communication. Too often we have failed to meet the challenge of communicating with multicultural communities – which comes at a cost for all of us.

Being a first-generation migrant myself, with non-English speaking Australian grandparents and growing up in a bilingual household I have seen firsthand the challenges of communication with Australian communities which originally came from other countries. I have seen my grandparents struggle with feelings of misrepresentation, a lack of awareness of government programs, an inability to keep up with current affairs.

My grandparents are deeply Australian, not in a stereotypical sense, but in the sense that they love this country. They regularly tell me how grateful they are to have been taken in when they needed a new start, how proud they are of their citizenship and Australia’s sporting, economic and other achievements, and how happy they are of the opportunities Australia has bestowed upon their children and grandchildren.

And despite this they cannot fully let go of their past. Love for one’s adopted home does not override the human instinct towards nostalgia, the acknowledgement and love of one’s roots, and certainly not the cultural influences, traditions and unique viewpoints of one’s home and history.  My grandfather still loves Russian vodka (although he also developed a love of VB), my grandmother is still devout in her Russian orthodox faith, they still tell stories of the beauty of the Volga, and the superiority of produce straight from Moldovan farms. Yet both talk about Australian politics, think deeply about how they want to vote and cheered with equal vigour both the success of the Australian World Cup team in 2006 and the Russian UEFA European Championship team in 2008.

They naturally form a community with those who speak their language and share some part of their background and history. But this community is no less Australian because it is different than either someone from metropolitan Melbourne or remote rural Queensland. What makes us all Australian is not language or a set of stereotypical behaviours involving barbecues and TABs, or a love AFL or cricket, but a shared desire to see Australia succeed. The most recent census data in 2016 showed 21% of households spoke a language other than English at home. This is a huge market that is overlooked by English-only media monitoring and communications strategies. This market has very different needs and often viewpoints that are not met or reflected by English-language media coverage. 

A recent report by the Labor Party on multicultural engagement provided first-hand accounts of people from multicultural communities struggling to access government services, understand government programs and navigate the difficulties of setting up a business. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) worried about the communication to multicultural communities regarding telehealth services set up during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that these communities would delay meeting their health needs. The ACCC highlighted the fact that multicultural communities were likely to lose over twice as much money on individual scams and that these scams were tailored and targeted towards them. 

The report also discussed the negative effects of English-language media communication about those communities, describing a story of a returning international student who had visited China during the Chinese New Year, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread. The Chinese-Australian community rallied together, encouraged the students to stay home and did their grocery shopping and other tasks for them to help them isolate, long before any official program was in place. There was a sense not only of a responsibility to the Australian community, but also that their community was under suspicion and being framed negatively in the media and they needed to work together to protect their image. 

This story reveals something that is prevalent if one reviews the difference between multicultural media and mainstream media discussion of the same topics. Mainstream media too often talks about these communities, rather than to or within these communities. English-speaking media for many non-English speaking communities feels like reading international news to get information about Australia. It doesn’t understand their communities and doesn’t communicate with them, rather it too often largely communicates about them.

In culturally and linguistically diverse media one can find articles on how people might navigate loving the country of their birth and their adopted home at the same time during a period of heightened tensions between the two nations. Articles like these written directly within these communities, speaking to these communities, provide great insight into the difficulties these communities face.

There is significant work to be done by Australian companies and government departments to improve their outreach to culturally and linguistically diverse communities and a great opportunity to improve the efficiency of services and connect with a large swathe of the Australian population. For organisations, talking to communities that have felt underrepresented, misrepresented and misunderstood for so long, and trying to understand them through greater engagement with their in-language media can not only help access a wider range of the population, but build trust and credibility in an under-utilised space.

Government organisations are starting to understand this, the ACCC launched targeted campaigns to warn communities of specific scams targeting them. ASIC, in its 2019-2020 strategy for small businesses made specific mention of outreach to multicultural communities to help inform people of their role in assisting, engaging and helping to protect small business, while also helping them access the resources they need to improve their financial acumen. Meanwhile, the Victorian state government spent 7.8% of its media and campaign budget on multicultural media in 2019-2020, up from 3.5% ten years earlier.

There is momentum in this direction, and culturally and linguistically diverse focused communications strategies, media monitoring and analysis is hopefully one way that organisations can make that push to reach all sections of the Australian community.

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