The Government’s ‘Stay alert’ messaging has been lambasted for being too vague, ambiguous, and a ‘political trick’, intended to divert attention away from more pressing issues.
Communications professionals criticised not only the content of the messaging, but also the way it was seeded into the public domain by pre-briefing journalists, and the disjointed nature of the rollout, which failed to notify political leaders in Wales and Scotland prior to being published in the press.
A few respondents defended the government's new messaging, while others explained that recovery comms is a different challenge to comms at the start of a crisis, requiring a nuanced approach.
The messaging also received negative sentiment from the broader public, according to analysis of social media.
On Saturday, the Government’s coronavirus slogan shifted from ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ to ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.
The new slogan also changed the red trim for green on the same yellow background. The initial public response to the new slogan was confusion.
Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean? pic.twitter.com/8cUmAVBVL7— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 9, 2020
In an attempt to combat the confusion, Number 10 released explainers about what key components of the message mean.
Everyone has a role to play in helping to control the virus by staying alert and following the rules.— Boris Johnson #StayAlert (@BorisJohnson) May 10, 2020
This is how we can continue to save lives as we start to recover from coronavirus.#StayAlert pic.twitter.com/2z9yl1Fxs4
Despite attempts to clarify the slogan's meaning, an analysis of more than 100,000 public posts and comments on social media found an overall net sentiment of -14, which is a ratio of positive to negative posts on scale of -100 (completely negative) to 100 (completely positive).
Kristian Hoareau Foged, an independent insights and analytics consultant who ran the analysis, told PRWeek the public sentiment was fuelled by the messaging being seen as too vague, ‘meaningless’, ‘not clear’ and ‘ambiguous’, as illustrated by the world cloud below.
What does it mean?
Several PR industry leaders speaking to PRWeek were left perplexed by the “ambiguity” of the new messaging.
Ginny Paton, a managing partner responsible for PR at Iris, questioned what ‘stay alert’ actually means.
“It’s vague, unclear and unhelpful,” she said. “If ever there was a message created by committee, this was it. It says nothing while covering everything.
“There was plenty of time and opportunity for clarity to be provided by the time we got to [Sunday night's] briefing. Massive own goal for the government.”
It’s a point picked upon by Engine MHP’s head of media, Ian Kirby – a former political editor of News of the World.
“Any campaign where you have to promise extra details a day after launch is not a complete success. The government should have listened to the devolved nations and stuck with the ‘Stay at home’ message,” he said.
Don’t Cry Wolf founder and chief executive John Brown described the new slogan as “blissful ambiguity”.
“By saying meaningless words with table-thumping vigour, the government has positioned itself to argue both sides of the fence. Accusations of draconian measures can be batted away with a casual wave of the hand towards the ‘easing of restrictions and messaging’. Any criticism around easing restrictions too early can be defended with a sideways glance to the complicated small print behind the big, bold messages.”
Several PR leaders believe the slogan places too much responsibility on the public's shoulders to interpret what ‘staying alert’ means.
Jenny Ousbey, managing director of OVID Health, warned: “Aside from asking us to be alert to a threat [we] can’t see… it demands that an individual control a virus, which is too big an ask. Our own research shows asking the public to take on smaller tasks, such as washing hands, has more emotional resonance. 'Stay safe, keep apart, save lives' would have worked better as a slogan at this point.”
Ruth Sparkes, managing director of EMPRA, said it is not just the messaging that is an issue.
“The 'Stay home' messaging was framed in red, [which] subliminally could mean ’stop’. The new message is framed in green; is that subliminally meaning 'go'? Mixed messaging leads to mixed feelings. And, when the message has been derided by other national leaders and trusted influential figures and celebrities, some with millions of followers, such as JK Rowling, it might be time to reassess,” she said.
Boris Johnson provided more details about a potential timeline to easing lockdown rules as the rate of transmission declines.
‘Not treating citizens as children’
Not everybody in the industry was negative about the new messaging. Grayling UK and Europe head of corporate Tom Nutt told PRWeek that although new wording opens up significant room for interpretation, he believes it will be a success.
“My sense is that [it is] treating the public as adults who understand the risks, have grown weary of the limitations of lockdown and need to move to the next stage of cautious reopening the economy,” he explained.
Matt Kilcoyne, the deputy director of think tank the Adam Smith Institute, said: ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ is more simple to understand than many commentators have suggested.
“As people look at returning to work they don't need to be shocked into abeyance of liberties, but they do need to stay alert by following the rules. This includes working from home if you can, ongoing social distancing, and good hygiene. It will also mean being alert to symptomatic people who will need to be tested, traced and isolated,” he said.
“It's the right balance between a repetitive and visible slogan that needs to be followed and not treating your citizens as idiots or children.”
Harriet Small, the PR and comms lead at Groth and Grace Collective, said the old messaging to “protect the NHS” was dropped fairly because it has been so effective at deterring people from using key NHS services that it had been “putting lives at risk”.
New data shows that there have been 8,196 more deaths at home since the pandemic began than in comparable periods in previous years, with 80 per cent not related to the coronavirus, leading experts to describe these deaths as “collateral damage of the lockdown”.
H+K Strategies head of behavioural science, Dan Berry, believes the Government’s new approach is more about strategy than messaging.
“If anything, the previous 'Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives' message may be deemed by some in Government as too effective in changing behaviour,” he said.
“The Prime Minister was clear that he wants many people to return to work if they cannot work from home. And demand for NHS services has fallen enormously since the “protect the NHS” message because so prominent, with an enormous backlog of unmet need for healthcare.”
Wales and Scotland will use different messaging to England as they are at different phases of the crisis. This highlights the challenge of a blanket approach to comms.
The 'recovery comms' challenge
What this change of tack by the government exposes is the challenges of a more nuanced approach to communications as lockdown rules are gradually eased.
This problem, argues Hanover’s co-head of London health and public affairs, Alex Davies, is that the public are seeking clear, black-and-white information on an issue that is complex and full of grey areas.
“Keeping people safe while getting the UK economy moving again is an eye-wateringly difficult task, with an infinite number of considerations and variables – that doesn’t make for simple, straightforward storytelling and we are starting to see the problems emerge,” he said.
“Lockdown was a simple story to tell – stay at home. Now that the rules are starting to be relaxed, the message inevitably becomes more complicated and the public are understandably confused.”
Crisis communications specialist Amanda Coleman agrees that recovery communications is more challenging than at the start of a crisis, but does not believe the Government has been clear enough or collaborated with enough key partners to spread the message effectively across the nation.
“What is needed now is a carefully woven tapestry of messages that will cover the geographical differences, the sectoral differences and other factors. It is definitely not a time for slogans and logos. In the middle of an emergency situation you want clarity so that you understand what is happening and can help,” she said.
“Crises need people to come together and that includes in developing the communication. I expect it will be the local public services that will face the huge challenge of making the latest messaging work for their communities.”
Leaders in Scotland and Wales were also left perplexed by the delivery of the message and have vowed to continue using ‘Stay at home’, warning that their nations are not yet ready to relax any aspects of lockdown.
The Sunday papers is the first I’ve seen of the PM’s new slogan. It is of course for him to decide what’s most appropriate for England, but given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage. https://t.co/zrnEgTC15H— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 10, 2020
MHP’s Kirby believes Downing Street is making a series of “very basic errors” in how it delivers key messaging, succumbing to pressure from political journalists in the Lobby and the Opposition to demonstrate progress instead of continuity.
“It is trying to divert attention from issues such as the shortage of PPE and testing by briefing on other issues,” he warned. “The most serious error is the growing habit of ‘testing’ new ideas by pre-briefing them to journalists and then getting Michael Gove to go on television denying the ones which prove unpopular.
“They did it a month ago with the 'traffic-light system' and on Friday with the disastrous claims that pubs were going to reopen. These are political tricks, which have no place at the moment, where clear and consistent messaging is vital.”
It’s a point shared by Field Consulting’s founder and chief executive Chris Rumfitt, who described the Government’s recent communications as “a shambles” and an “appalling example of mismanaged expectations”.
“From headlines about ending lockdown to those modest changes in a matter of days, public confidence in the Government’s handling of the crisis is bound to take a dent,” he told PRWeek.
“In usual times I’d call this incompetent. But with lives at stake, I call it irresponsible.”
Additional comments and tweets
Stay Alert is a very difficult message to convey and the problem with ambiguity is that people are focusing on that rather than the other messages delivered by the Prime Minister. ’Stay apart’ may have been a better option, as that would relate to the messages around public transport and only returning to work in construction and manufacturing if social distancing allows. In many respects, the Government was starting on a ‘back foot’ – too many messages had been drip-fed out in the days prior to the announcement, and pictures of VE Day celebrations also provided many mixed messages. The starting point should perhaps have been: 'We are continuing lockdown for another three weeks, but we have small changes to help us in the transition when lockdown is finally lifted.'
Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, chief executive officer, Liquid
Worst thought slogan since the UK government chose ‘UK OK’ for the post foot and mouth tourism push, without thinking some might read it as ‘U KOK’...— Rhodri Harries (@rhodrih) May 10, 2020
The problem isn't the message, the problem is that they released it before the national address. Out of context that imprecise message is very easy to critique and then to continue to pick apart even in context – it's hard to stop a train. In the address we were basically told that we have to get manufacturing and construction back underway and start making some money and that we can now sit on a park bench if we want but don't go on public transport and then maybe some school years can go back after half-term and then in July maybe we can chill out a bit more. That timeline is conditional. Within that context, 'stay alert' means: "Yes, we are relaxing the 'stay home' message, but that doesn't mean this is over, so for crying out loud don't relax too much." I guess when that's the message you're trying to convey, 'stay alert' probably does the job. The fact that it also makes me want to keep an eye open for left luggage is just a by-product.
Kate Stevens, president, AxiCom Europe
If you switch from red to green you signal go rather than stop.— Angela Corpe (@Corpea) May 10, 2020
If you need to explain what should be a very clear message, it's not very clear.
If the rest of the UK refuse to use it, it causes division and confusion. It also sends a message that you are wrong - never good PR
Never mind the slogan – that announcement was too full of detail on possible future plans, yet still left lots of questions unanswered about immediate ones. He’s left too much room for people to make their own decisions and I fear that can’t be the policy intent. Far better to describe actions that are allowed or prohibited than to encourage a state of mind.
Julie Kangisser, founder, Think Communication
The biggest issue here is that Stay Alert w/o context is meaningless. They've clubbed severed behaviours under this umbrella term but adherence requires audiences to comprehend and recall these behaviours. It's also more vague and much less of an instruction than Stay at Home 1/2— Shayoni Lynn #StayHome (@shayonislynn) May 10, 2020
Credibility and clarity are cornerstones of effective crisis management and unfortunately it’s something that our Government’s response has been seriously lacking from the outset. ‘Stay alert’ does nothing to reassure us in this respect. The message is far too vague and the framing is all wrong; it calls to mind images of muggers or suspicious packages. The general public know that being alert isn’t enough to protect them from a highly infectious, dangerous virus and are looking for clear direction and reassurance. The messaging just doesn’t make sense in the current context and this further undermines the government’s credibility at a time when the country desperately wants strong, competent leadership.
Jessica Eaton, head of external communications, RNIB
Pre-briefing in this instance has failed spectacularly. The Sun was shockingly bad. It’s alienating and has backfired horribly. I’d love to know exactly what happened there as it set the tone. Govt communications a shambles. Meanwhile, in Scotland...— Ben Ayers (@benayers) May 10, 2020
We need to find a way out of this mess and – as well as the obvious need for PPE, testing, tracking, tracing, effective treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine – we desperately need effective communications to influence behaviour. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s latest tub-thumping statement was punctuated not with clear and concise messaging but with confusion. STAY ALERT (for something you can’t see without an electron microscope). CONTROL THE VIRUS (with what exactly?) SAVE LIVES (by going to work if you can’t work from home despite no plans being published about how you do so safely). We are in a crisis and we need good crisis communications. What we have instead is tragic mismanagement that will ultimately cost more lives.
Ian Hood, founder and chief executive, Babel
A change in direction needs a change in format, not a modification of the old one.— Derek Flint #stayathome (@KBOCoach) May 10, 2020
While the Government has finally set out a timeline for schools and the hospitality industry, which can only be a good thing, it is struggling to communicate the next phase to the average person. The new slogan means very little without explanation. It doesn’t pass the ’yell it out of a car window’ test. ‘Stay alert’ has already been confusing people. ‘Control the virus’ – this seems like a big, complex order and nowhere near as emotive as ‘protect the NHS’, so loses impact. I feel the Government has a way to go yet to explain what it means – and the pre-briefings to newspapers merely added to the confusion.
James Saville, co-founder and press director, Goldbug
During the last election, this Tory machine was lauded for its precise three word mantras, that were relentlessly pushed out to the public. Where is that now? The insurgent hellraisers like Cummings who are now at the head of the government spent their careers leading vote-getting campaigns. They are finding out that it’s harder to deliver a testing kit than it is to promise a miracle. The government describe what we are facing as wartime, so they should use the vast talent in UK PR to come and man the barricades. We must all do all we can to help.
Mark Borkowski, founder and head of Borkowski
First Minister of Scotland says "#StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message", whilst her counterpart in Wales also stands firms and insists his message "hasn't changed." The Govts new messaging reads more like a strapline for World War Z than a public information piece of comms. pic.twitter.com/fAx64ERljC— Paul MacKenzie-Cummins (@PaulMacKenzie_C) May 10, 2020
Not fit for PR. Says nothing it intends to – while saying everything it doesn’t. Stay alert (already am - but thanks for the reminder), Control the Virus (how? By going out? Or not going out?) Save lives (without the NHS ref this lacks connection). The UK seems largely ready for lockdown to end. This slogan suggests mass panic at No. 10. Own goal. The NHS was the new football unifier.
Steve Adams, director of public engagement, All We Can
Boris's failure to say "stay home", or even "stay home as much as you can" will be seen as an overt signal to, well, go out. It seems like this was pre-recorded well in advance. And during the past several hours, they've just been sitting at no. 10 saying: "Damn the torpedoes..."— Mark Cooper (@MarkCooperSport) May 10, 2020
The ‘stay alert’ message sounds like that most dreaded of comms outcomes: the compromise position. With so many views on offer, they’ve tried to please everyone and ended up with a meaningless fudge. It’s neither instructive nor a call to action. It needed a 138-word explainer with it. It’s also accompanied by an infographic that has six different instructions. Coupled with all the happy headlines that promised an easing of restrictions, the accusations of mixed messages are valid. Changing the message is clearly an ideological move: it doesn’t sit comfortably with this Government to be dictating what people can and can’t do. So the shift in message is designed to put the onus onto society to take personal responsibility for their actions during this extended lockdown.
Lorraine Homer, crisis communication specialist
Business will have to wait to see the detailed work guidance published tomorrow - but it’s clear it’s going to be a long haul back #COVID19— Iain Anderson (@iain_w_anderson) May 10, 2020
'Staying at home' is simple, actionable advice. ‘Staying alert’, ‘controlling the virus’ and ‘using common sense’ - as we’ve heard from Dominic Raab - is far too ambiguous and risks misinterpretation. The public need clarity. They need to know what’s safe and what’s not. In simple terms. The new slogan requires too much explanation and therefore reduced effectiveness. We can only hope the follow-up guidance includes the practical advice we all will rely on.
Tara O’Donnell, UK managing director, Hotwire