The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

We’ll meet again – in Busan

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a freelance thought-leadership consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Hands up who’s heard of Busan? Probably not that many! Until I visited South Korea I hadn’t either. Well, Busan’s a bustling port city with a population of about four million people. Its significance? In addition to its prominence as a thriving business and tourist destination, it’s the country’s alternative capital city.

Seoul is only 50km from the border with the North. The erratic and ruthless regime of Chairman Kim could easily use artillery and missiles to decimate the metropolis. Busan, meanwhile, is 325km from Seoul on the Southern coast. It’s closer to Fukuoka in Japan than it is to the capital, however you can get to Seoul in just two and half hours on their amazing 400kph bullet trains. This makes it a great deal more resilient in the event of an attack from the North Koreans. Many public sector and infrastructure businesses have already co-located their HQ between Seoul and Busan. The local stock market operator, KRX, has its head office in Busan. In short, it’s a viable alternative capital city.

What can we learn from this? I think a lot. If London was engulfed by a catastrophe, would the UK be able to function? Unfortunately, I doubt it. In 1953, the GDP per capita of Korea was $153. Barely measurable. In South Korea, it’s now $32,000 and fast catching up with countries like Italy. The country has rightly been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but, alongside their many other accomplishments, the ability to re-think and behave strategically surely lies at the heart of their long-term success.

When the issue of a post-mortem review of the Government’s response to the pandemic is raised the most frequent response is “now is not the right time”. It took the 9/11 Commission in the US almost two years to produce its final report. With its impact on the whole of our society and its international aspect, the inevitable inquiry could be a similarly long and convoluted affair. If it’s to be concluded and acted upon before the next general election, it needs to get underway.

So, yes, let’s build – however, we should also have a Busan strategy. Here’s a few ideas.

Designate a city as the alternative centre of UK government. The country is hugely over-centralised. London dominates. We need to be more like Germany with its multiple capital cities. Manchester gets my vote. 

Abandon the refurbishment of historic Parliament. Instead, build two new facilities – one in London and one in Manchester. The Palace of Westminster can be re-purposed as a heritage centre. We all agree that it’s a wonderful building, but it’s completely unsuitable as a modern workplace. It’s also the most disabled-unfriendly facility I’ve ever visited. We need a fully digital building optimised for local and remote working. It should be hugely accessible and be as green as possible.

Create The Department of National Resilience. Locate it in Manchester. Its aim should be to design, build and operate a resilience plan for the entire country. Not just the Government – all aspects of society.

Create an NHS Reserve. And model it on the military reserve model. All retired doctors and medical personnel should be enrolled, trained and paid.

Review our unwritten constitution. For a short while, the Prime Minister was gravely ill. It was never clear whether the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had taken the throne. If there had been a national emergency while Boris Johnson was in intensive care, how would urgent decision making operate? Who was in charge of the nuclear launch codes during that time?

Mr Johnson’s hero – Sir Winston Churchill – won the war, but lost the subsequent election. Despite the epochal Beveridge Report being issued in 1942 – in the midst of the war – the public didn’t trust the Conservatives to deliver the new society they wanted. I don’t want the same thing to happen once again. With more than four years before another election, there is now an opportunity to win both this battle and the next election. However, we have to start now.

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This piece was written for our website.

Post Covid-19: Have we and will we change?

GUEST POST: Leon Cook is Founder and Managing Director of Atticus Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

UK GDP fell by over 20% in April, more than three times the drop experienced during the 2008 great financial crisis. The impact of Covid-19 on the health and well-being of individuals, let alone businesses and the global economy is hard to quantify.

And yet the country is focused on getting ‘back to work’. Last month, the government announced the creation of five new taskforces responsible for the safe reopening of some of the country’s key economic sectors. With the easing of lockdown measures, businesses are gradually bringing back furloughed staff and ramping up operations. Just as quickly as we were forced to adapt to remote working, companies across the board are reassessing their workplace and work methods. The Coronavirus hasn’t just changed our office footprint. We are and will hereafter continue to communicate differently.

Corporate responsibility and action

Time and time again, companies are advised on the importance of social responsibility and purpose, yet many fail to fully engage with this process despite the benefits to employee morale, the corporate brand and overall productivity.

A GlobalWebIndex study found that 84% of consumers think that a company’s poor environmental policy could result in them parting ways with that brand. In a world rocked by Covid-19 and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, businesses must recognise that consumers and employees are watching. They must be engaged and communicated with in an empathetic way.  

Leaders must listen – and act

If it wasn’t already the case, Covid-19 has put employee well-being at the forefront of concerns for every business, irrespective of size or sector. Now more than ever, staff need reassurance from corporate leaders. With jobs and livelihoods on the line, employees require transparency and openness from those in-charge. 

In the wake of the recent racial equality protests, businesses globally have taken notice and started to ask themselves – what are we doing wrong? One way of answering this question is by asking employees themselves. Simple top-down messaging on its own is ineffective. There must be genuine two-way engagement. As we transition out of lockdown, messages and programmes of inclusivity and good culture must be upheld – and as such communicated. What has this crisis taught you and changed in respect of your corporate culture?

Engage with government

We are in a period of major change, undoubtedly. We’ve witnessed an upheaval of our societal, political and economic norms. Peacetime interventions by governments across global economies have never been so extraordinary. As we transition through the crisis, it is arguable that the government will and should be more attuned than ever to the needs of industry – the very dynamo that will kick-start our economy.

With the old rules being rewritten, businesses need to be at the forefront of any regulatory changes, especially with Brexit looming. No company is immune. It is vital that organisations use this opportunity to the fullest and engage policymakers effectively, and widely to ensure better and fair policy-making.

Take action

We are witnessing permanent changes across the business world. Organisations must ensure that they are agile and prepared to meet these changes. A renewed focus on improving internal communications will be vital to garnering the respect and trust of employees. Carefully watching and influencing policy will be key to staying ahead of the curve. Companies that can swiftly adapt to an agile style of working will prevail in the post-Covid era.

Covid-19 has changed us forever. The opportunity for business lies in ensuring that this mark is not a scar, but merely a footprint in corporate history. Businesses that continue to operate as they did prior to the crisis will, in the long-run, be eclipsed. Operate with integrity. Put employees first. See the change coming. Communicate.

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This piece was written for Public Affairs Networking.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.

Covid-19 has forced us to adapt

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at Newington Communications and a former Conservative Special Adviser. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

So much of politics takes place in the margins; politicians physically bumping into each other in the corridor, in the MPs-only tearoom, and in the division lobbies.

It’s not just backbenchers; an industrious minister can often achieve far more huddled with a colleague before or after some dry Cabinet sub-committee than in the meeting itself.

All those chance encounters and snatched conversations are out for as long as the new ways of working are in.

MPs have accepted those ways of working to ensure scrutiny of the Government without risking the health of those who have to be in Westminster, and have adapted well to meetings on Zoom instead of in Portcullis House.

While the new proceedings are working well enough, whenever you change the nature of Parliament you change the nature of the politics that takes place within it.

We last saw this after the expenses scandal.

Select Committees became relevant, capable of setting the news agenda with high-profile Chairs elected by all MPs and evidence sessions people actually wanted to tune in to. Campaigning backbenchers saw new routes to push their causes through debate slots that they – not the Government – controlled, and online petitions opened up greater public involvement in what Parliament debates.

The type of person coming into Parliament changed and, with the later introduction of recall, even the person themselves occasionally changed mid-Parliament.

It will be up to MPs whether to keep any of the more radical changes, such as electronic voting, that have been pitched to them as temporary, but there will certainly be other opportunities for longer-term innovation.

Select Committees – already early adopters of technology before the crisis – lend themselves to more creative scrutiny, with witnesses perhaps appearing virtually at shorter notice, or Committee visits being livestreamed.

The political agenda, too, will change as society reassesses what it collectively values, and politicians try to anticipate the public mood.

Debates on issues as varied as supply chain resilience, broadband and 5G, social care, and the future of the BBC will be shaped by the public’s experience of the crisis and politicians’ response.

Engagement has clearly changed, too, as social distancing takes away opportunities to build relationships in the way we have become accustomed to.

As we get used to working without that face-to-face contact, it will be more important than ever to prioritise arguments that anticipate and respond to the changed political agenda and demand attention at a time when MPs and ministers have far less bandwidth.

We don’t yet know what permanent changes we will be left with, but we can be sure that whenever it is safe for MPs to go back to bumping into each other they will be doing so in a Parliament – and a political environment – that is different to the ones they left.

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This piece was written for PRWeek.

The art of simple messaging

GUEST POST: Callum Attew is a Senior Account Executive at ENGINE MHP. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

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.

Has social media become more caring during Covid-19?

GUEST POST: Jonny Piper is a digital and creative communications expert, most recently working on the Conservatives General Election Campaign. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

The British pub quiz is one of life’s simple pleasures. Pull together a few friends, pick a team name and enjoy an evening racking your brain; how many moons does Saturn have? Who was the oldest UK Prime Minister to leave office?

And that’s how I spent last Thursday, while enjoying a rather lovely house red. Normally to be avoided, except in this case the house red meant just that – pouring myself a glass while sat at my kitchen table, listening to the – questions at home via WebEx, conferring with friends over Microsoft Teams and clinking glasses with my webcam.

Matt Hancock says coronavirus ‘thrives on social contact’, with social distancing measures a necessary mechanism to slow down the spread of infection. But we too also thrive on social contact, feeding off it to work, learn and grow.  So, it’s no wonder that the ability to continue communicating digitally with friends, family and colleagues has been so crucial and shouldn’t be taken for granted. What on earth would we be doing right now if not for the internet and social media to keep us working, connected, informed and entertained?

I’ve watched this seamless connectivity bring out the best of humanity: caring and compassionate communities that are using digital and social media to bring people together and look out for those in need. Across social media you’ll find businesses innovating and finding new ways of working, an army of digitally co-ordinated volunteers caring for the vulnerable, and individuals channelling their creativity to keep us entertained.

I almost daren’t say it, but I’ve also watched as social media has become more caring. The tone of our conversations is more empathetic. Businesses are abandoning competitive thinking and instead selflessly looking to philanthropy. Party politics and the online vitriol that so often follows has been replaced by a country unified in willing the government to succeed in combatting the virus.

And it’s that spirit which has made this technology so critical; my phone and laptop have become my eyes. WhatsApp and FaceTime have become ears. In isolation, social media has become my integral connection to the world, my lifeline. And in Britain today, the spirit of the Blitz isn’t found while crammed onto an underground station platform as the sirens sound, but instead found in Instagram Stories across the country as the nation pours out its support for our incredible NHS workers with an ocean of applause.

Yet there are constant reminders of the world beyond the screen. Netflix nudges us after a few hours of binge-watching to check that we’re still conscious, and tech companies have added ‘screen time’ features to remind us to step back and look up at the world around us. A digital lockdown, it seems, regularly taunts us of what we’re missing.

We don’t yet know what world we will find ourselves in post-coronavirus. Social media might suggest that we’ll be a more caring and considerate society, and I certainly hope that’s true. But I also hope that we’ll be more digitally aware, learning to switch off more and appreciate IRL contact. I, for one, will be making a meaningful effort to engage with the world around me and not get distracted by a vibrating pocket. Phones off everyone, the quiz is starting!

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This piece was written for our website.