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Fractured policies, fractured messages

13 May 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Fractured policies, fractured messages

From ambiguous slogans to inept newspaper briefings, the government's new communications policies are in danger of costing lives, writes Ray Snoddy

Some people judge that the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least in the initial stages, was a shambles.

But set aside for a moment more than 32,000 virus related deaths and rising, and ponder the success, or otherwise, of its communications strategy – the slogans, messaging and briefings.

The best political slogan of all time was probably the Saatchi & Saatchi confection: Labour Isn’t Working.

The 1978 advertising campaign against Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government was hardly fair and the endless queue of the apparent unemployed snaking into the distance were repeated images of Saatchi employees.

Yet it was highly effective because it reflected a version of the truth that resonated with many citizens as Callaghan headed towards his Winter of Discontent.

The referendum slogan Take Back Control worked because it tapped into a visceral feeling held by many Britons that the UK was being pushed around by the unelected faceless bureaucrats of Brussels.

Three words with emotional appeal that cut through, and even side lined, a myriad of complexity.

Get Brexit Done was equally powerful because it accurately represented the view of those who really did want to complete Brexit, while reaching out to those who were just exasperated by the never-ending saga.

Those three words foreclosed the possibility of any debate and undercut the many millions, perhaps even a majority of the population, who would have liked to have had the opportunity to vote on the terms of leaving the EU.

When the UK Government took the unprecedented step of placing the country into lockdown on March 23rd – almost certainly at least two weeks too late, but that’s another story – it had a fine slogan, or slogans to match.

With a mere seven words a difficult truth was communicated well.

Stay Home was the instruction. Protect the NHS was a compelling reason why and Save Lives, the reward and a desired outcome that no-one could disagree with.

The Government policy was clear and it was clearly communicated.

Before any company, government or campaigning group comes up with a slogan or advertising campaign there has to be a clear unified concept on what the destination is.

As Tony Blair, among others, has pointed out, good communications springs from good policy not the other way around.

The abandoning of the Stay Home slogan by Stay Alert, and replacing Protect the NHS with Control The Virus has been widely and justifiably mocked.

Credit: @FraserStewart7

Notable examples: Be Vague, Cover Our Back, Shirk Responsibility and Sneak Up, Shout at The Virus, Then Run. There's plenty more here.

The ultimate condemnation of the Stay Alert approach is not just that it is entirely meaningless but that polls show two thirds of people have no idea what it means while the rest ascribe different meanings to it.

The Government has a deep problem with its current communication policy because there is a profound political rift within the government about what to do next.

It’s difficult to convey a united front when some Cabinet ministers continue to urge caution on how rapidly the lockdown should be lifted and others want to boost the economy as quickly as possible.

The tensions have produced a dog’s dinner of contradictions – not least the fact that you can invite a cleaner or an estate agent into your home but not your parents, or that you will be able to have a holiday in Ireland or France without checks but nowhere else.

Fractured policy produces either a fractured or meaningless message.

Perhaps the Government should have called in Saatchi & Saatchi or some less illustrious creative hotshots to address an admittedly complex conundrum – how to tell some people to stay at home but not others.

It would also have been better for Boris Johnson to communicate and even consult with the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and not least members of his own Cabinet, before recording his address to the nation.

It would have been better to keep the existing slogans as the other nations of the UK have done while explaining the detail of a complicated message elsewhere.

If change was deemed necessary then a single simple uplifting slogan might have been better, something reflecting social solidarity from the Obama songbook – Together, Yes We Can Beat This.

Stay Alert is not the only aspect of the communications shambles.

So many newspapers could not have got the tone of their forecasts on the easing of the lockdown quite so wrong without a lot of inept official briefing. Whether it was Magic Monday in the Daily Star or First Steps To Freedom From Monday in the Daily Express such exuberance could ultimately cost lives.

The Government is also in danger of losing public confidence by its manipulation of the charts in the daily press conference.

Although there is room for new charts there is none for the one demonstrating the international comparisons showing that the UK is second only to the US in cumulative Covid-19 deaths.

Luckily the FT is still carrying daily international data on the uncomfortable truth.

That may give a hint on why the government is having trouble with its communications strategy - the unanswered questions at the heart of the matter - why the UK should have more than 32,000 Covid deaths and more than 50,000 excess deaths compared with a five year average.

Was the late lockdown the result of bad scientific advice or was the scientific advice ignored by the politicians?

Professor Anthony Costello of UCL has talked of “an emerging consensus” among the scientists in early March that drastic social action was needed to prevent the virus running out of control.

Perhaps we already have the answer from former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the decision to abandon testing and tracing in the UK was “one of the biggest failures of scientific advice to ministers in our lifetimes.”

But you can’t put that in a slogan.

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22 May 2020 

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