I think it’s fair to say that the Government’s communications have been a little confusing and contradictory recently.
I daren’t even bring up the arguments I have about the ‘new rules’ put in place today, what I wanted to talk about instead was the updated messaging from those above. “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”, formerly known as “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
Only recently were the government’s communications efforts were hailed tremendous, with some even saying the message was “too successful“. Whether you support the government or not, I don’t think you could argue that the ‘stay at home’ message hasn’t been clear.
So why change it?
Stay Alert, Or Stay Home?
As commuters crown the London tube and buses this morning, the word ‘second spike’ is on the lips of many. Tied in with news of airlines on the brink of collapse and the UK economy shrinking by 5.8%, this morning has been entirely bleak. The optimistic attitude that Great Britain had just a few weeks ago is almost entirely gone. Almost everybody I know is feeling unmotivated and confused.
The mood has shifted completely in just a few short days, it wouldn’t be crazy to presume that this is at least in part thanks to the change of messaging from the government.
We were once told to stay home, now we’re simply being told to stay alert. We’re being told to go back to work if we cannot work at home, but to not take public transport to get there. We’ve been granted the privilege of seeing one parent in an open space, but not the other (unless you come back the next day, that is).
I’ve commended the actions of the government until now, and it’s not often I get political on this blog, but without a shadow of a doubt this is now an absolute shitstorm – and unfortunately, the root of the problem is the flawed communications strategy that’s started at No.10.
What’s In A Slogan, Anyway?
Is this unfolding chaos really down to the change of a few words? It can’t be said for sure, but I would argue yes, at least partly.
Before the infamous speech on Sunday, we were given a clear message: stay at home.
This has been in place since the start of April (where my boss helped to break the news) and critique has been in short supply. Why? Because it’s a message that’s easy to follow and easy to measure, you must stay at home and if you’re out of your home for anything other than the small list reasons allowed, then you will be fined.
The rules worked well at first, but order and conform started unravelling towards the end of this ‘first phase’. I’d say this is at least partly due to the lack of Government communication since the lockdown was first announced. At first, we were given a motivating speech and clear guidelines, towards the end of this period Boris Johnson is seldom seen at the Government daily briefings, different ministers are telling you different things and the lack of reassurance and confirmation of what’s expected them inevitably led to people taking it upon themselves to decide what was okay.
What was needed, in my opinion, was not a change in the message, but a reinforcement of it.
Nevertheless, this isn’t the avenue the Prime Minister chose to go down, and since, the mood has shifted rather dramatically.
When “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” was introduced, it was coupled with a confusing ministerial address and a 50-page document that said a lot without really saying anything. The message is confusing, we are no longer being told to stay home, but aren’t being told what ‘stay alert’ means either (save two screenshots taken from the iPhone notes app which has a myriad of problems in itself).
You can just tell this is the product of a coffee-fuelled, last-minute panic.
But can public order really be traced back to a slapdash slogan? Absolutely, I think.
For starters, the change in colour from red to green suggests ‘go’, it implies safety. With 90% of people being influenced by snap judgements of colour, is it really any surprise that people have taken this new slogan as an indication that we are out of the woods?
Secondly, changing the message from ‘stay home’ indicates that we no longer need to stay home (we do), and therefore it can only be assumed that in the coming weeks we’ll see more and more people flouting the rules. Common sense prevails in a situation like this, but we have already seen that we cannot rely on the public to have common sense – as such, firmer messaging was needed.
With this slogan at the forefront of any official messaging from the government, the actions that have happened as a result of this show how important it is to get your communications right. When messages from those who govern us are confusing and erratic it’s unsurprising that the actions of the general public follow suit.
What Could Have Been Done Better?
From official statements drawn up in iPhone ‘notes’, to changing rules as they go, I think most people would agree that as we shift down a level on the ‘risk scale’, the communications from the Government deserve lambasting.
However, I once read that you shouldn’t critique something if you cannot provide a better alternative yourself.
I don’t make it a secret that I am very young in my career, only graduating 2 years ago. However, I think even those with no communications experience whatsoever could still mock up something better than what those in charge have put in front of us.
Personally, I’d have not changed the slogan myself – not unless anything has changed dramatically in a wider context (e.g. lockdown was being lifted or cases had come right down), which it hasn’t. ‘Stay home’ was a clear command to follow, and it was working, I’d have just reinforced this message with harsher fines for those who did not comply.
Or, if I was to suggest an alternative change in the message, it should at least be something tangible.
We’re all going to have different thoughts on this, I’d love to hear yours. Let me know on Twitter or in the comments below.