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.

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).