Careless talk costs lives: communicating in the time of coronavirus

The famous wartime poster. Imperial War Museum

As far as we’re aware, COVID-19 isn’t capable of listening to Boris Johnson’s daily press conferences. But the UK government’s confused communications strategy is risking lives in the greatest health crisis for a century. It swerves from reassurance to urge calls for action. It’s muddled.

Problem 1: lack of openness

At a time of national emergency, clear, consistent, open communication is vital. Boris Johnson’s government took far too long to realise that the old days of spinning a line off the record to a chosen political reporter had to end. ITV political editor Robert Peston was at the heart of a storm a week ago when he was briefed that the government was planning to quarantine older people for months. Within hours, England’s health secretary Matt Hancock gave an article to the Daily Telegraph to explain the government’s approach. The problem? Telegraph content is behind a paywall. To give the government some credit, within 36 hours it held the first of its daily news conferences, with the prime minister flanked by the top medical and scientific advisers.

Answer: be straight with people. Share the medical advice that’s shaping policy. Health crises are not political. The prime minister need to be a national not a tribal leader. He needs to educate the people – the sign of a true leader.

Problem 2: lack of urgency

Action this day“, Winston Churchill used to demand. Despite writing a biography of Britain’s war leader, Boris Johnson seems to have learned little from his hero. Johnson appears reluctant to lecture the nation and tell its people some hard truths. Had he been in charge in 1940, he wouldn’t have promised “nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. Instead he’d have promised we would turn the tide against the Nazis in 12 weeks. The people in many cases have been ahead of the government, not turning up for events they’d bought tickets for. Sporting bodies put Six Nations rugby, Premier League football and much more on hold days before Johnson suggested social distancing. (The people were also stockpiling loo paper on an extraordinary scale but that’s another story.)

People were unnerved by the way Britain was one of the only nations not taking prompt action to restrict the spread of the disease. I said at the time this approach would be hailed as an act of genius or folly in due course. I fear it may be the worst. Johnson’s government appeared callous when it explained it wanted to achieve herd immunity. In other words, the more people who contracted COVID-19, the greater the immunity the UK would develop. Anyone who had followed Italy’s tragic experience would have seen this as foolhardy. As some commentators pointed out, there’s a huge difference achieving herd immunity through immunisation compared with letting a virus for which there’s no vaccine race through society. Was Britain’s medical and scientific advice really so different from that in the rest of Europe?

Answer: act quickly. Time costs lives. Don’t hope for the best

Problem 3: don’t announce policy when you can’t answer obvious questions about it

It’s a basic rule of PR. Don’t make an announcement unless you’ve worked out the answers to all the obvious questions that will be asked. At almost every stage of the COVID-19 crisis the UK government has failed this test. For example, it announced school closures in England on Thursday 19 March without any answers about how GSCE and A level exams would be rearranged, or how the school places for essential workers would be managed. Similarly, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak’s commendable announcement of significant help for employers made no mention of the self employed. How could a Tory government miss this critical element of the economy? Friends who run their own businesses have been hugely stressed by the crisis.They need and deserve better.

Answer: communicate quickly, but not before you have the answers people need

Problem 4: inconsistency and confusion

Boris Johnson told the nation that “We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks”. In a sense he was right. Taking firm action now could produce results in three months. That’s what China achieved. But Johnson’s advisers would surely have known that such a claim would be mocked like those 1914 assumptions that the Great War would be over by Christmas. (And The Sun newspaper mocking Labour prime minister James Callaghan during the winter of discontent in 1979 with words he never uttered: “Crisis, what crisis?“) And remember Johnson made those comments when the UK government was not advocating the closure of pubs, restaurants and gyms. Within 24 hours, the language and policy had changed dramatically. All those places would be urged to close. Urged, not ordered, leaving the police and local authorities in a difficult situation. Could they compel closure?

Answer: Be consistent when you can, but switch tactics when you need to

Problem 5: this is no time to show off

Boris Johnson is a vivid communicator. He has a turn of phrase that Theresa May could never match. At his best, he can rival Tony Blair. But he has a tendency to show off. At Tuesday’s COVID-19 news conference he told the nation that the key message was that people follow the advice “sedulously”. Who was he trying to impress – the junior common room at an Oxford college? Plain language is key to crisis communications. You need to be sure that the message is getting through to as many people as possible.

Answer: this is no time for long words or Latin tags. Plain English can save more lives

Problem 6: years of neglecting public services

This is the most political point, but I make no apology for that. The Conservatives have spent a decade imposing austerity on public services. Key public workers are worse off than a decade ago – innocent victims of the financial crisis caused by the stupidity and greed of the banks. In 2017, Theresa May callously told an NHS nurse there was no magic money tree. Yet today, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have found a forest of them.

Similarly, the health crisis has made it frighteningly clear that over-promoted home secretary Priti Patel’s view that Britain doesn’t want ‘unskilled workers’ is staggeringly ill-judged. These are the people who keep the NHS, care homes, farms and supermarkets going. Let’s hope that inadequate ministers like Patel are swept from government as the reality bites.

Answer: let’s vow never again to neglect our public services

Problem 7: where’s the public health advertising blitz?

Do you remember those Brexit adverts the British government ran last autumn? Yes? How about all those compelling ads telling people how to stop the spread of COVID-19? No, me neither.

This is incredible. British public information advertising used to be brilliant. I still remember Reginald Molehusband, who starred in a film about parking cars – years before I was old enough to drive. More dramatically, the Thatcher government told us not to die of ignorance in the 1980s Aids crisis. Yet now, when we’re enduring the worst pandemic since 1918-19: nothing.

Answer: we need a massive campaign to educate the people on how to stay safe, and shaming people who are stockpiling essentials

Problem 8: words alone are not enough when we need people to behave responsibly

Politicians have been telling people not to stockpile goods or gather in crowds for a week. Yet it’s not made the blindest difference. The prime minister’s own foolish father said he was off to the pub. Twitter was crowded with images of packed pubs and London tube trains. Words were proving pitifully inadequate in changing behaviour.

Mind the pandemic… Photo: Business Insider

I don’t doubt the government’s motives. This wasn’t an ideological approach. I believe it genuinely hoped people would get the message and do the right thing. But sadly human nature was too ingrained.

Where did all the loo paper go?

The great British public has been indulging in panic buying on an epic scale. For some, it’s an irritant. But for NHS staff like Dawn Bilbrough, finding the shelves bare after a long shift is the last straw. The government has taken no action despite over 10 days of chaos. It has left the supermarkets belatedly to try to ration supplies.

Answer: Boris Johnson needs to show some leadership and act to ensure critical workers have the supplies they need. Words are not enough

These are extraordinary times. I don’t envy Boris Johnson or the first ministers of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as they lead our nations through the greatest health crisis in a century. I genuinely believe they are acting in the best of intentions. Let us work together for the benefit of everyone throughout these islands and beyond.

2 thoughts on “Careless talk costs lives: communicating in the time of coronavirus

  1. Pingback: Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue | Ertblog

  2. Pingback: Dominic Cummings: the lies that shame Boris Johnson’s government | Ertblog

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