As we move into June, and with a slowly-but-steadily declining death rate from COVID-19, we are mercifully now in the second phase of the UK Government’s crisis management comms exercise; getting society and economy moving again while continuing to flatten the infections curve.
But while most comms experts would have expected this (nuanced recovery) phase to be imbued with a carefully managed, cautious optimism, it has instead felt febrile, verging on the chaotic.
The bank holiday at the beginning of May, when Prime Minister Johnson first hinted at relaxing lockdown, was bad enough. The Spring bank holiday this Monday was far worse; coinciding as it did with the furore over special advisor Dominic Cummings’ behaviour.
Experienced comms professional and agency owner Paul Charles said: “I’m astonished the Government machine isn’t more with it, and doesn’t appear to have access to better advice. Cummings should have apologised on Saturday for the distraction; laid out the timetable then of his illness; and Boris should then have announced further lockdown easing.”
But the scandal around Cummings has rumbled on, overshadowing vital messages about responsible public health.
Yesterday (Wednesday) Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock launched the latest core message for the British public: ‘Do your duty to defeat the virus’. It was an important pivot in the Government’s comms programme.
Whereas the first phase – ‘Stay home. Save lives’ – felt like classic command-and-control messaging from the British state, this phase is inherently more nuanced, with greater responsibility placed on on individuals’ judgement.
The Government is now relying on the tracking and tracing of infections, and people who have been in contact with those people expected to strictly self-isolate.
Crucially, this relies on individual self-discipline and co-operation at a time when the rest of the population will be returning enthusiastically to parks, shops and maybe even foreign holidays.
The terrible irony however, is that the Government of late has palpably lacked any of the discipline and co-operation demanded of the public.
“Their strategy has been muddled since Boris went into hospital,” says Charles. “Before he went in, they were doing well. Then they lost their way as Boris/Matt Hancock/Chris Whitty went down with it. And the Cummings saga has been so badly handled. You would think the highest levels of government would have access to the best crisis comms advice around. It’s staggering.”
Indeed, the PR leaders I speak to are deeply shocked by the Government’s deteriorating comms performance.
After the infamous Cummings press conference one agency boss told me: “That was a diabolical comms exercise. No contrition, no empathy. A shameful display totally misreading the mood of the nation. Someone needs to tell him that his circumstances were not ‘exceptional’ in any way.”
And Rachel O’Reilly, comms director at travel firm Kuoni and a crisis expert, said: “Given that all this was known about well before the story broke and could have been anticipated, you’d think the Government would have had a statement and plan ready, rather than that classic PR no-no of ‘No comment.’ Instead the media were left to speculate, and we had Cummings snarling at cameras on the doorstep… people getting increasingly angry.”
If one looks at modern history’s best political comms exercises – from the 10-year New Labour project to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign – they do tend to be characterised by professionalism, strategy and the right combination of collaboration and discipline.
But it seems for this Government the rules are different.
Boris Johnson – like Donald Trump, and unlike Tony Blair, Obama or even David Cameron – is an instinctive, populist leader. As a result, we appear to have moved into a Trumpian era of political communications in Britain.
Michael Lamb, a consultant at Golin London, makes an important point: “We can’t judge [this Government’s] strategy by our industry’s best practice approach. From day one [this Government] has been testing comms tactics on the public – they’ve replaced strategy with straplines.”
The other way in which the Government’s comms strategy has started to resemble Donald Trump’s is an increasingly dismissive attitude towards the mainstream media.
There have been growing attacks from the Conservatives on the BBC, too, the latest example of which was the deluge of complaints against Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis when she ‘editorialised’ at the beginning of Tuesday’s programme.
Indeed the sight of Dominic Cummings, in Downing Street’s rose garden, summoning journalist after journalist, tempting them (daring them?) to challenge his authority felt deeply symbolic of this administration’s whole approach to comms.
All that said, in truth it will be extremely difficult for this Government to achieve its aim of getting people to comply with the next vital stage of this crisis without better collaboration with important stakeholders, including the media.
We have the unfortunate situation of relations between Government and fourth estate operating at a dangerously low ebb at a time when the former wants to close co-operation from everyone.
It doesn’t appear yet to have a viable alternative to the traditional rules of professional comms. The healthcare authorities are certainly demanding a rebuilding of good old-fashioned multi-stakeholder trust.
“As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, where lockdown restrictions are eased, the central question is whether recent developments have hindered the delivery of the more nuanced public health message that is required as people are able to exercise more discretion on the guidance,” Daniel Reynolds, director of comms at the NHS Federation, told PRWeek.
“Adherence to the guidance has saved tens of thousands of lives. The Government must now show leadership to repair the damage and restore confidence. If it fails, the risk of a second wave of infections will increase.”
Johnson and Cummings know well that if this happens, their management of the crisis will no longer be viewed as chaotic, but truly catastrophic.