The art of simple messaging

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Has the Government been an effective communicator throughout the pandemic? 

The original slogan deployed by Her Majesty’s Government – in response to the coronavirus pandemic – reached every household across all four UK nations. It’s a clear message that conveyed a sense of urgency. It also instilled a sense of duty among the public; that, in order to protect our loved ones, as well as our much treasured NHS, everyone must play their part. 

With Google data (April 5, 2020) showing that retail and recreation movement had fallen by 82% compared to the baseline, it was apparent that the language – leveraged across all advertising channels and lecterns at the daily press briefings – really resonated with the British people. 

Now, we’ve seen this messaging logic before – it’s nothing new. “Get Brexit done” and “Take back control” spring to mind as recent examples of how the ‘rule of three’ has been used to condense seemingly complex issues into digestible pledges. It’s a tried and tested formula that delivers solid results.

As we move through this crisis, and as the strategy to defeat the virus becomes convoluted, there is potential for messaging to become muddied. Indeed, if a slogan is mistaken as a substitute for detail, then the frailties of the communications strategy will be laid bare for all to see.  

When the Government unveiled its new slogan, instructing the British public to “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”, there was an initial sense of confusion, among the media at least, as to what it wanted the public to do. While it appeared that the clarity of the initial message had been lost, it would’ve been naïve to suggest that the Government had lost control of the messaging. Indeed, as the strategy shifts, it would be detrimental to its success for the message to remain static. 

The Prime Minister’s ‘Address to the Nation’ on Sunday evening, where a new slogan was given its debut, may have initially left the public wanting details to the questions that it raised. However, from a communications perspective it was vital. In pivotal moments in the nation’s history, it is incumbent on any prime minister to go to the people and explain the situation that the country finds itself in and outline how the government intends to guide them through it. This was one of those moments. 

The changes to the strategy had to be understood by everyone – from the 18-year-old in Newcastle, wanting to meet-up with friends, to the 80-year-old grandmother in Nuneaton, who wants to hug her grandchildren. 

This is where building on the Prime Minister’s statement, and the supplementary documents provided by the Government, is vital in providing clarity – in this sense, the messenger becomes just as important as the message. 

On Monday, the Prime Minister was once again flanked by Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance at the daily press briefing. The public needed reassurance that what is being asked of them is in their best interests and will not compromise their health. Scientific experts are the individuals best placed to provide this message and earn trust.   

The Government is also placing a large degree of trust in the public to take note of the subtle changes to the lockdown period and to respect what is being asked of them when it comes to social distancing initiatives. And, in order to ‘Stay alert’, a large degree of common sense is at play – it would be over fastidious to expect a handbook with a Q&A of every single possible situation that may arise, and such a thing would call into question the relationship between citizen and state. 

So, in answer to the original question – yes, at times government messaging has been incredibly effective. Though, let’s not forget that it has come up against its challenges. Now, as individual UK nations seek to implement different measures, the message is at risk of being confused. Clarity and direction need to be at the heart of future communications. Discipline of message cannot be lost. The health of the nation depends on it. 

I look forward to seeing the results of the CiC Census 2020, but these are my initial thoughts!

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This piece was written for our website.

Let’s be optimistic

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m not an overly religious person, however I respect our Christian heritage and identity. While we pause to think about the 250 people killed and hundreds more wounded by suicide bombers in Sri Lanka last Easter, this weekend is generally considered a happy time for Christians – as they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that his resurrection symbolises that death is not the end. On this Maundy Thursday / National Winston Churchill Day / my birthday – during what is an unusual period in our nation’s history – I urge everyone reading this blog, whether you’re a believer or not, to reflect on this holy message of hope and to inject a bit of optimism into your outlook. As I’ve written countless times before: although optimism isn’t everything – it can make one hell of a difference.

Last summer – or BC (before Coronavirus), more than half of all Tory MPs and two-thirds of Conservative Party members voted for Boris Johnson during the leadership contest. In December, the electorate voted in one Conservative MP for each day of the calendar year. People roundly rejected ‘Project Fear’ and bought into Mr Johnson’s optimistic vision – to ‘get Brexit done’ and focus on the people’s priorities. He’s already delivered on the former and is working on the rest, such as controlling immigration, which is why – four months on – polling finds ratings that have not been seen for a British prime minister since the early days of Blair’s premiership.

Now that he is feeling under the weather – but improving, I reckon we owe it to ourselves to reject ‘Virus Fear’ and to cheer him on. While everyone can do their bit, some have additional responsibilities.

In my opinion, publishers, editors and journalists have a responsibility to educate and entertain. Now, every time someone tunes into the news, logs onto Twitter or picks up a newspaper, all they see is ongoing news about the number of deaths as well as who and how many people have been tested, and whether the heir to the throne is a priority (the answer is: yes); comparisons with other countries; talk about designated survivors; lessons about the UK constitution or lack thereof; speculation about caretaker leaders; and yes, plenty of codswallop from Piers Morgan. I understand that news channels have airtime and newspapers have column inches to fill but there must be a limit.

Further, for many people (politicians, their aides and PRs included), working from home during the lockdown presents an opportunity to spend more time talking to loved ones, friends and family, albeit by Zoom, Houseparty or whatever is the tool the whiz-kids have concocted. I say: embrace it!

Go for a walk and discover something new about your local area. Plan that big vacation to Greece and get into shape for it. I, for one, long for downing a pint of pale ale outside a traditional pub on a hot August day and sipping white wine by the swimming pool in Tuscany. Follow what’s going on with other populist campaigns around the globe, including President Trump vs the former VP Joe Biden – now that Bernie Sanders has finally dropped out – as well as growing support for both Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy as more and more Italians become disillusioned with the EU’s response to managing Covid-19.

And finally, (start or) keep reading. For books, try ‘The Churchill Factor’ by you know who or ‘The Gatekeeper’ by Baroness Fall. For newspapers, it must be The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post (by the way, do continue to buy them and support the industry). For magazines, try The Spectator and British GQ. And online, try alternative media such as Spiked and Politicalite. Before you know it, we will be back to normal and you’ll be complaining about not making the most of this time and weather.

Every death is tragic, and everything must be done to prevent more, flatten the curve and move forward. It’s why everyone must adhere to the government’s advice: to ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’, because, together, we can get through this – and, this summer, we’ll raise a glass to those loved ones we lost before their time and say Cheers! to our future.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by The Commentator (‘Let’s be optimistic!’ – April 8, 2020) and Politicalite (‘Despite Coronavirus, let’s be optimistic this Easter’ – April 9, 2020).

BoJo will give Britain back its mojo

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

After celebrating last week’s success, I’ve started to think about what we can expect to see in the new year.

On Thursday, the people spoke loud and clear. They chose to place their trust in the Prime Minister, the Conservative & Unionist Party and its parliamentary spokespeople throughout the UK – to deliver Brexit and move forward, so that we can focus on other priorities. In short, a sense of pride and identity was restored.

Boris Johnson’s government, or ‘The People’s Government’ as he now labels it, won exactly 365 seats – an MP for every day of the year and a stonking majority of 80 at that – making this the best result for the centre-right party in over thirty years. In fact, the gain of 47 is the highest of any Tory administration ever, including Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1983. Since 2010, the Conservatives have increased their share of the popular vote from 36% to 44%. They have a legitimate mandate to govern and, thankfully, the ability to break the log-jam in Parliament.

Personally, I’m encouraged to see so much talent – many of them Conservatives in Communications in former lives – take their seats on the green benches: Alex Stafford (Rother Valley), Nickie Aiken (Cities of London & Westminster), Paul Bristow (Peterborough), Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), Richard Holden (North West Durham) and Theo Clarke (Stafford). I hope, and expect, to see more talent re-/join in the future, specifically in Scotland and the capital.

Put it another way, the electorate let the loony left – led by the Hamas and Hezbollah supporting socialist Jeremy Corbyn – know exactly what they thought of their policies. Momentum’s most stunning achievement? Getting Northern ex-miners to trudge through winter rain to vote Conservative. Working class Britons have firmly taken back control; Blue Collar Conservatism is steaming ahead. 

The Tories ran a disciplined campaign. As expected, polling analysis, social media and audiovisuals took centre stage again. Credit to the folks at Hanbury Strategy, Topham Guerin and Westminster Digital for playing their part. In terms of messaging, ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ was replaced with ‘Get Brexit Done’. But unlike in 2017, when Theresa May misread the mood, Mr Johnson stood outside Number 10 and urged the 100% – Leavers and Remainers alike – “to find closure and let the healing begin”. Congratulations to the national campaign team, including Isaac Levido, Lee Cain and Rob Oxley. 

On Saturday, the Prime Minister travelled to Tony Blair’s former constituency, Sedgefield, and gleefully declared “We’re going to recover our national self-confidence, our mojo, our self-belief, and we’re going to do things differently and better as a country”. On Sunday, Lord Heseltine admitted he and others – including People’s Vote campaigners – had lost and dismissed the prospect of them fighting on. 

And how did Corbyn and his allies react to all of this? Faiza Shaheen, who stood against Iain Duncan Smith, looked distraught at the count in Chingford and Wood Green. Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar (commentators and activists), who dominated Labour’s narrative, had a meltdown on TV – again! Lily Allen even deleted her account on Twitter. Many of them joined the violent and extremist, some say terrorist, group, Antifa, in protesting outside Downing Street – like they did outside Buckingham Palace during President Trump’s most recent visit – before revealing their support for Angela Rayner, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Richard Burgon as potential future leaders.

Meanwhile, its current leader – who refuses to go or take responsibility for the outcome – wrote a rather misguided piece for The Observer: ‘We won the argument, but I regret we didn’t convert that into a majority for change.’ Let me be clear. 1. No you didn’t. 2. You don’t say. Caroline Flint, had she not lost her seat, Lisa Nandy or Yvette Cooper would be more effective at the helm. However, if I had to place a bet on it right now, I reckon members will back Rebecca Wrong-Daily. Sorry, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Regarding press, I want to revisit a theme that I’ve previously highlighted. That, people are quickly losing faith in the mainstream media. Is it any wonder when the BBC mismanaged the TV leadership debates, Channel 4 showed its bias and Sky chose to pay John Bercow £60,000 to be its guest despite only mustering an audience of 45,700? Yes, it was somewhat amusing to watch him squirm as the results were announced but get a grip! Expect the new Culture Secretary to make the BBC licence fee a top issue. If Channel 4 doesn’t return to the old days and if Sky fails to see the error of its ways, then also expect the electorate to turn towards alternative media.  

A while back I argued that we need to redefine our purpose, move forward with our global partners, unite the UK – and defeat Corbynism. I believe we have achieved that. World and party leaders, including Scott Morrison and Matteo Salvini, were queueing round the block to congratulate Mr Johnson on his achievement.

This week, he should focus on delivering the Queen’s Speech and bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). Get that out of the way and deliver the January 31 promise. After Christmas, he can concentrate on lowering taxes and investing in public services while at the same time launching debates about controlling immigration and more besides.

Before the campaign got underway, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tweeted: “The Tories thought calling a winter election would stop us campaigning. They were wrong.” I responded: “No, they thought the people deserved a Parliament that would represent them. Londoners deserve a mayor who will champion them. Next year, they get their say.” 2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘BoJo will give Britain back its mojo’ – December 16, 2019).

Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

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This piece was written for our website.

Beyond Brexit: unleashing Britain’s potential

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

‘Get Brexit Done’ is a reasonable enough slogan with which to start this election campaign. But we need to know why the Conservatives want to get Brexit done; how they want to use our new-found freedom; and what it can do to promote democratic and economic repair. The Tories have a good case. Now they need to make it.

Not my words but those of The Spectator’s editor a month after party conference in Manchester.

Despite it taking longer than anticipated, Parliament was eventually dissolved, the Prime Minister met with the Queen and the Conservatives launched their election campaign in Birmingham. The rationale for this was clear: we need to break the impasse so that the government of the day can deliver on the will of the British people. Failure to do so will result in understandable outrage and irreparable damage to trust in politics.

While some people will vote on Brexit alone (Vote for the Tories to get Brexit done; Vote for the Liberal Democrats to stop Brexit one way or another – how democratic!; or Vote for Labour to negotiate yet another deal, hold yet another vote and yet campaign against said deal?), others are looking beyond our relationship with the EU. They are looking for policies which will benefit them and their families as well as businesses, with those priorities based on what matters most to them. 

As demonstrated in their party political broadcast aired last night, the Conservatives understand those priorities to be: strengthening the economy in order to invest in better hospitals, safer streets and improved schools. They have put their weight behind this ambition and in doing so built upon the slogan, packaging it as ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’.

The question becomes – how do you achieve this? I believe the answer lies in a stronger national identity and a common purpose, and that Blue Collar Conservatism offers us a way forward. It is a cause supported by current and former MPs, councillors and activists, the length and breadth of the UK – including poster boys Johnny Mercer (South West), Lee Rowley (Midlands) and Ross Thomson (Scotland). If you missed it on TV, you can – and should – read Lee’s witty yet serious response to the Queen’s Speech on Hansard. Also, if you haven’t seen Simon Jones’ Hansard at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan – do; it’s both genius and devastating.

Blue Collar Conservatism is about championing working people and developing an aspirational agenda to benefit the communities that really feel left behind. Working people stand to benefit most from Conservative policies designed to maximise opportunity and empower them to live their lives; better, together. So much is at stake in this election: don’t be tribal – examine the manifestos when published. 

If – OK, when – the Tories win a majority, now that The Brexit Party isn’t challenging the seats they won back in 2017, I expect we’ll hear much more from Mercer et al. Before then, candidates – including no less than 12 supporters of Conservatives in Communications – should be selling this bold plan on doorsteps while warning voters about the alternative: chaos with Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan pushing for a repeat of two referenda on leaving the EU and breaking up the United Kingdom. No thanks!

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Beyond Brexit: Unleashing Britain’s Potential – November 14, 2019).

Priti decent turn of events

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

Last week, the BBC issued an apology after Andrew Marr accused Home Secretary Priti Patel of laughing during an interview about Brexit. Quite rightly so – because she wasn’t. Shortly after the statement was released, the Conservatives in Communications (CiC) network welcomed the Home Secretary to our autumn reception, which took place at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery in Westminster and was kindly sponsored by Built Environment Communications Group (BECG).

Before she was elected as an MP – and promoted to several roles within Number 10, HM Treasury, DWP and DfID – Patel worked in the communications sector. Her analysis of the current state of play and her advice to the PR industry were therefore of relevance, interest and well-received by the many professionals in the room. As you might expect, much of her fireside chat with Kulveer Ranger, patron and a former advisor to Boris Johnson, focused on delivering Brexit, and the dynamics between the party and Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, these issues continue to dominate the agenda this week. What begun as just a slogan in Manchester – ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Get Brexit Sorted’ to our friends north of the border – has become a shared common purpose that most Tories are united behind. In fact, Patel was keen to point out that the whole of the parliamentary party backed both the second reading and the programme motion on Tuesday. That was some whipping, but also representative of the public’s general angst, clear and disciplined messaging and a determination to move on and forward.

Sadly, while the second reading did – the programme motion didn’t pass in the House, so we are back in limbo; exactly what businesses wanted to avoid. Extra time to debate the deal won’t really change anything. As I’ve written in the past: One constant throughout these past four years has been the failure of the remain and remoan camp to run an effective operation and win enough support. Has anything changed? No. But Johnson is willing to compromise. Opposition parties should vote for the election motion this afternoon. Failing that, MPs should back the election bill on Tuesday.

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This piece was written for our website.