Danny Rogers: Swine flu tests limits of public comms

Observing the Government struggling to communicate the issues around swine flu, one is forced to ponder the pivotal role of PR in achieving changes in public behaviour.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

Health Secretary Andy Burnham's various appearances on broadcast outlets on Monday morning were a case in point.

Burnham had clearly been briefed to reassure an anxious public in the wake of the inevitable scare stories conjured up by the fiercely competitive Sunday papers. He was also being careful not to pre-empt his announcements to the House of Commons later that day.

Unfortunately the result was a series of horribly lacklustre media performances in which he actually revealed little, and the result of which was further confusion.

Fortunately, the subsequent media appearances of true experts on the issue - paediatricians and GPs - proved more reassuring. They were armed with the necessary facts, judgment and gravitas to make the public feel more informed about the risks and potential treatment.

The Government has a tendency to stress the message that it is 'better prepared' than administrations in other countries, but without its official spokespeople appearing assured, well-informed or capable of delivering consistent messages.

One senses the Government has indeed put a lot of effort and resources into health crisis planning, suggesting communication is the prime challenge here.

The latest COI report this week shows the vast amount of money now spent on public communication. It shows how much the Government trusts comms to achieve its various ambitions. But throwing money at the problem is not necessarily the answer.

This is not to say the Conservatives are right when they view public sector comms as a layer of 'bureaucracy' to be cut as part of a squeeze on public spending.

In this age of scrutiny the importance of professional and efficient communication by government will become more and more critical.

But swine flu is teaching this administration that good comms is about more than just big budgets.

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