‘Be honest about how bad it might get’: Alastair Campbell’s 20 crisis comms tips for the PM

Former No. 10 comms director Alastair Campbell has told Boris Johnson to resist the use of “smart-arse language” and express genuine sadness and regret at deaths in the UK from the coronavirus during his press conferences, as part of 20 crisis comms suggestions for the Prime Minister during the pandemic.

Be honest with the public and provide more detail, Alastair Campbell advises Boris Johnson
Be honest with the public and provide more detail, Alastair Campbell advises Boris Johnson

In a blog post over the weekend, Campbell said he defined a crisis as “an event or situation that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy you or your organisation unless the right decisions are taken”.

He said Johnson had won the December general election with the expectation of delivering on his pledge to ‘get Brexit done’, but that he must now swiftly adapt to the new and unexpected reality of the pandemic sweeping the globe.

Narrate the strategy 

Tony Blair’s former comms chief said it was right that the Prime Minister allow experts such as the chief medical, officer Chris Whitty, to take centre stage, but that Johnson himself must also become an expert on the crisis because, ultimately, he must decide on the next steps – and explain them.

Campbell added: “In a crisis as fluid and fast-moving as this one, a proper communications strategy is one in which the Prime Minister takes the public into his confidence about the process and the reasoning behind his thinking. He has to decide, execute but also narrate a strategy.”

Detail and complexity

Johnson should wean himself off the use of snappy phrases such as ‘wash your hands’ and ‘send the virus packing’ and get a grip on the details and complexity of the situation.  

Campbell said: “Only if he is honest about the situation will he secure public confidence and understanding for the decisions made to seek to improve it. His ‘we can send it packing in 12 weeks’ boast was foolhardy, and not supported by anything else being said.”

Campbell added that Johnson’s style of speech, given to “long, mellifluous rambles”, was impeding his ability to get strong, clear messages across to the public, citing the PM's response as to whether he would be seeing his mother on Mother’s Day yesterday as an example. 

Project competence 

There is little point in trying to make the public like him, Campbell said, because “the only quality people want to see in him right now… is competence, and the ability to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and explain them clearly.”

Comparing Johnson with the PM's political hero, Winston Churchill, Campbell said the current leader was very different because he could not resist letting his mouth wander with his mind, and “in a crisis, every word of a leader counts”.

Twenty suggestions for the Government 

Campbell went on to give 20 suggestions for Johnson's briefing team to bear in mind at the daily press conference, in abbreviated form below.

He said Johnson should express genuine sorrow and regret for those who have already lost their lives to the virus, and thank those working to alleviate the situation.

All briefings should begin with factual updates and they should be conducted in the morning to control and shape the coming day’s news agenda, while further information and graphics should be made available online in formats that are easier to digest.

The suggestions, which are thought to under serious consideration by the Government, are:

  1. Start all briefings with factual updates. How many cases, deaths and full recoveries? Stats on COVID-19 tests, NHS staff tests, and sickness. Stats on ventilators, protective equipment and retired NHS staff returning. Explain regional variations in cases and mortality. Use visuals and graphics. Detail, detail, detail.
  2. Express sadness and regret at deaths, and thanks for all those in the public services and beyond who are helping. Empathy matters, and make sure it is not formulaic.
  3. Have stories to tell of developments, and recovery, from the UK and elsewhere.
  4. Have a small team working on global analysis and provide a short, distilled account. The good news and the bad. The trends, good ideas and examples being set. Show what is informing your thinking and decision-making.
  5. Provide updates of everything virus-related happening across Government. Pre-empt the difficult issues on prisons, mental health and domestic violence and set out work being done, changes being made, and any messages you want to send. Do not shy away from the complexity and the vastness of the possible ramifications. Do not pretend it is easy or straightforward.
  6. Explain how any progress or setback relates to announcements made in the past or now. Provide detail. Visuals, graphics. 
  7. Consider doing the main briefing in the morning, and an online version later in the day. This allows you to control the agenda better, use the morning meeting to think through all difficult questions, use the afternoon to maintain momentum and prepare for the next day. There is no such thing as a media deadline. Set the rhythm of the day according to your needs, and the reality of the crisis, not the media’s.
  8. Without being alarmist, be honest about how bad things are, and how bad they might get.
  9. Do not make major change announcements without thinking through answers to every question likely to arise. I am totally sympathetic to how hard this is, the pressures you are all under, the pace at which events are moving, but it has felt too fly-by-night.
  10. Use visuals and graphics, and get them out on social media as you speak. You are getting large TV and radio audiences for the briefings, but most people will continue to absorb the news in bite-sized chunks and online, after the event.
  11. Resist the snappy one-liners and the smart-arse language. I like to think I know my English, but I still had to look up ‘sedulously’ when you told the country that is the approach we should take.
  12. Use powerful images already established in the media and public mind, such as the clip of the Yorkshire nurse in tears because she could not buy the food she needed, to speak out against panic buying.
  13. Be ready to liven up the format. People will tire of the same format, and there is a risk they stop listening. Sad, but true. 
  14. Smarten up. Comb your hair before every briefing. This is not a trivial point. In times of crisis, people look to leaders for confidence and strength. If you look a shambles, the fear is people sense that you are a shambles.
  15. Stop charging into the briefings as though you are chasing down that boy you smashed on the rugby field in Japan. People want to see calmness.
  16. Stop hitting the lectern as you speak. It buggers up the sound. I know you want to communicate energy and drive, and that is fine. But wind down a couple of gears when you get into full flow.
  17. No more homilies and rambles. Factual. Businesslike. When in doubt, shut up.
  18. Emphasise the long haul. Yes, people want hope, but the 12-week line was a line, not a plan. ‘Sending the virus packing’ was a line, not a strategy.
  19. End the silly boycott of certain news channels and programmes. It was childish at the time and it feels more childish now.
  20. Broaden the team. You have to front most of this, but you also have to do a lot of work behind the scenes. Take four of the less busy ministers and turn them into all-purpose government communicators.

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