Tom Simpson analyses Government messaging during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Boris Johnson took centre stage to lead us through this pandemic, I imagine he didn’t envision the pantomime it has become. Far from the Cummings-inspired clarity of his two infamous Brexit narratives, the coronavirus messaging has failed at almost every conceivable chance. Cummings et al. are usually so adept in their ability to cut through the noise with catchy soundbites that capture the moment. This time, when the stakes are at the highest, the government’s messaging has simply not been good enough.
Every panto must have a beginning and so it was with our own comic lead shaking hands with everybody, even those he suspected had coronavirus, despite advice from Sage against doing so because of the importance of hand hygiene. “It’s behind you!” the world shouted, “Oh no it isn’t!” was Johnson’s reply.
That was merely the start, the ensuing weeks and months have been filled with confusions and contradictions that have left us anxious and angry. Initially we were told that the virus would be sent packing within 12 weeks and that we would do well to keep deaths under 20,000. Now, nearly 4 months after the first case, we hear Johnson singing the government’s praises over avoiding a scenario of 500,000 deaths.
The confusion has continued over the effectiveness of face masks, testing targets, the reopening of schools and with whom we can meet, to name a few. Even when messaging has been clearer, the piecemeal nature of information has been damaging. Government sources have consistently let slip information that has led to bemusement and flouting of the rules. We only need to cast our minds back to the prospects of small gatherings and picnics being leaked just days before a sunny bank holiday. You don’t have to be a behavioural economist to know that when the public are primed to hear good news, they will hear it whether you say it or not. The result of all this? Widespread confusion and huge VE day street parties that may set us back even further.
Social media and print publication spend has been significant, but not impactful or creative enough. The government has missed the huge opportunity of consistent TV advertising. There have been calls from all sides for public information films to be run during prime-time ad breaks. If we can be shown, with calculated clarity, exactly how social distancing works on a practical basis this would invaluable. It must be said, where the government has failed brands were able to capture the moment whilst getting the stay home message across with ads such as ITV’s “Stay at home lads” or Cadbury’s “This doesn’t need to end”.
Some have pointed to the government’s austerity-driven axing of their in-house agency, the Central Office for Information, as the source of its woes. An article in Campaign talked of a real lack of deep policy expertise in the comms strategy. The fact that so many disparate stakeholders are working to provide a small number of clear messages is making comms increasingly fragmented across different media channels and in terms of creative impact.
Now we have the new “Stay Alert” slogan and only the final figures will tell us if it has worked. For now, it feels unclear and unsafe. A YouGov poll found that just 30% of participants understood the instructions of the new slogan. The removal of the “Stay Home” message feels like a green light for the public to begin resuming life as normal. In fact, even the colours themselves have changed from a hazardous red to a positive green. Further, the fact that ministers have needed to spend precious airtime explaining the intricacies of what “Stay Alert” is, tells us as much as we need to know. We should not need clarity on a government public health message. When it comes to a life-threatening virus, there is no room for nuance.
The proof, as always, will be in the pudding. Messaging must reflect policy and right now, it seems the government are struggling on both ends. Something tells me that, in the face of the second worst death toll in the world, we won’t see Johnson bowing at the curtain call.
Tom Simpson is a University of Bath Graduate and an aspiring marketer.
He tweets at @TomSimp29568043