Serious times demand governments with a serious tone: can the PM rise to this challenge?

This week the government scaled up its communications about the coronavirus crisis.

The Prime Minister must adopt the correct tone to command the confidence of the public, argues John McTernan
The Prime Minister must adopt the correct tone to command the confidence of the public, argues John McTernan

Prime Minister Boris Johnson started holding daily press conferences. This was a response to the rapidity of the increase of the spread of COVID-19 across the United Kingdom – a rapidly changing situation requires rapidly updated information. How has the new departure worked?

Pupils panic and teachers none the wiser after muddled message

At first sight, the optics work well. As with previous ad hoc No. 10 press conferences on COVID-19, the briefing is held in the State Dining Room – a large, formal room that can accommodate up to 65 people at a formal dinner and, in this case, political lobby journalists and TV cameras.

The wooden panelling, the Union flags and the lecterns all give a visual sense of authority, and the Prime Minister was flanked on Monday by his key expert advisers – chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

The information, analysis and advice has a weight that matches the setting.

Just as the sombre tones of Ian McDonald, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence during the Falklands War, gave confidence to the public, so the medical and scientific expertise of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance – and their quiet academic tone – gave credibility to the new advice.

This was important, because Monday’s press conference marked a substantial U-turn on the previous strategy of the Government. Dramatically, people were told to avoid all non-essential social contact – effectively an instruction to work from home wherever possible – and to avoid social gatherings not just with friends and family, but also in pubs, restaurants and other venues.

And people over 70, and those with underlying health problems, were told that they would need to self-isolate for 12 weeks from this coming weekend.

This was a request for restrictions in movement unprecedented in peacetime, which realistically would have been harder if it had solely been a political request.

The ability of journalists to quiz the experts as well as the Prime Minister was critical.

But it is worth reflecting on the other reason why a new style of communicating was required.

It’s an iron law of strategic communications that you can’t talk your way out of a problem you’ve behaved your way into.

The best media strategy in the world can’t conceal a flawed operational strategy.

The reverse is true – a faltering comms operation is often a leading sign of the wrong business strategy.

UK Government policy moved in three days – from last Thursday morning to Saturday evening – from having the ‘aim’ of herd immunity to Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock writing that "Herd immunity is not a part of [the government’s plan]".

The pivot to self-isolation was an urgent and needed change in strategy, driven by new epidemiological modelling.

The shift to abandon the briefing of selected political journalists, in favour of daily press conferences, was equally welcome.

Only two wrinkles remain.

The informal style of Boris Johnson is a key part of his charm, approachability and success as a Prime Minister. It is, though, a style that can be too loose-lipped.

Launching a campaign for a mass programme to build ventilators for intensive care units is good policy. Terming that ‘Operation Last Gasp’ is far less wise.

Serious times demand governments with a serious tone.

Finally, the devil is always in the detail.

When an announcement with a major impact is made – such as that of school closures – it needs to show it is has been fully thought-through, to the most granular level.

There is still confusion today about whether private schools will have to close, precisely which children will still go to school, and what will happen to exams – among many other questions.

In the end, comms is retail – and retail is detail.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

Thumbnail credit: Getty Images

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