A social media alert yesterday served to remind the roughly 1 million New Zealand citizens and residents abroad that there wasn't yet room for them in the team of 5 million.
The reasons for the cancellation of the latest MIQ room release are justified given the growing presence of the Omicron bogeyman in New Zealand, but the delivery of the message left a sour taste in the mouths of Kiwis who miss their mums, brothers, sisters, grandparents and friends.
This social media faux pas offered a hint that a Government once praised for the clarity of its communication was perhaps not quite as resonant with Kiwis as it once was.
The Government's gift of the gab has delivered some iconic phrasing over the course of the pandemic, but many of these one-liners have become stale as the past two years have worn on.
Framing the battle against Covid-19 as the team of 5 million fighting against a virus wreaking havoc around the world once galvanised the masses to endure lockdowns, get vaccinated and do their part.
But the population has started to look beyond local borders and realised that many Kiwis who have been clamouring to join the crew, simply haven't been able to do so.
It comes as little surprise that the "team of 5 million" war cry, recently emblazoned on a Labour vehicle number plate, has become soft target for the Opposition, with both National and Act offering reminders that New Zealand is actually a team of 6 million.
New Labour Party ads on Instagram feature a car with the ‘Team of 5 mil’ number plate. pic.twitter.com/Iic9NuFUAF— Jason Walls (@Jasonwalls92) January 17, 2022
This isn't the only phrasing that's no longer fit for purpose.
The Government's "Be Kind" mantra has also been flipped into a negative, used to criticise politicians anytime a decision hurts a certain group. Nowhere has this phrase grated quite as much as in hospitality and tourism, both decimated by pandemic restrictions.
The other phrasing that's wearing thin is the notion of "New Zealand's world-leading" Covid response. People who are waiting for their lives to return to some semblance of normality, or to visit family abroad, simply don't care about New Zealand's relative position on a list of rich countries that could afford to stop commerce and secure a sufficient supply of vaccines.
"World-leading" is the sort of phrasing that public relations professionals use in an attempt to convince news editors that what they're pitching is hip right now. It rarely works with cynical journalists and it's far less likely to work with a public whose weariness is marching directly into cynicism.
We've seen countless examples in the United States of how delusions of exceptionalism do little but create blind spots to shortcomings that are obvious to everyone else. We should not allow New Zealand to fall into the same trap.
This isn't a criticism of the policies of New Zealand thus far, but rather a question of how we push the messaging forwards to ensure that the solidarity we've had so far continues.
What politicians say – and how they say it – matters. It has the power to drive people to do the right thing. But for that to happen, the messaging must be pitched in the right way.
We saw the dangers of getting the messaging wrong last week, when University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker's suggestion that New Zealand should remain open to "flattening the curve" was viciously slammed by readers.
The "flattening the curve" phrasing, long used in the Government's covid communications, has become shorthand for more lockdowns and restrictions – concepts that have become unpalatable to most.
Now, more than ever, it's critical that the Government continues to listen to the advice of experts, but also finds a way to evolve the language to reach an audience that has changed over the past two years.
Some might argue there's no point in changing the messaging, given that the core ideas remain the same, but this overlooks the influential impact of emotion in pulling people one way or the other.
The world's houses of religion always offer a useful case study on the power of pitching recycled stories in new ways.
Part of the reason evangelism is so appealing to so many lies in the delivery of the messages. The stories being told are more than 2000 years old, and yet the most effective preachers continue to find modern ways to deliver them to audiences with changing tastes and values.
Even within established institutions like the Catholic Church, it's remarkable what a difference the change in tone from Benedict to Francis has made in the reach of the messaging.
During this pandemic, the Government has shown an almost uncanny ability to promote a sense of solidarity throughout the nation. The question now is whether it has the ability to rethink the narrative to bring people back to its gospel.