The COVID-19 Diaries: Blame and division, but we want a better future

PRWeek continues its ongoing partnership with strategic insights consultancy BritainThinks to gauge the public mood on COVID-19.

The unity we felt at first has swiftly dissipated, writes Deborah Mattinson
The unity we felt at first has swiftly dissipated, writes Deborah Mattinson

"It’s nice that we have some freedom back – the chance to visit friends, family, the shops, the pub. But in the background I still feel that sense of dread."

This, from one of our ‘Coronavirus diarists’ – 50 people from all walks of life – was typical.

As Britain starts its tentative return to normality, while daring to be a little more hopeful, many still can’t quite shake off their anxiety.

Six out of 10 told us they will only feel safe when a vaccine has been found.

The country, initially united behind the collective effort against the coronavirus, now feels as divided as ever.

It seems we’re in blame mode, too; feeling judged while also actively judging others.

There is a heightened sense of morality.

Nearly three-quarters believe that they have followed lockdown rules more closely than the average person – although a third also think it’s OK to ‘flex the rules’ as long as you are careful.

The public, initially united behind the Government as it tackled the virus, now divides along political lines once again – although along Leave/Remain lines rather than a party vote.

Trust has fallen away. Boris Johnson is seen as “bumbling” and more are now critical than favourable of his leadership.

At the same time, the Opposition, absent for so long, is back.

Keir Starmer, seen by his growing number of fans as ‘a Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Labour Party’ has now overtaken Johnson as preferred Prime Minister.

Long-term change

The public yearn for some good to emerge from this bleak period.

Our polling found just one in 10 wants life to return to ‘normal – exactly as it was before’.

Instead, many want fundamental change: a reconnection with the natural world; a gentler pace of life; greater value placed on essential workers.

They are willing to fund it, too – 70 per cent expect their taxes to rise and 60 per cent are content with this, especially to fund their beloved NHS.

Improved funding for the NHS was people’s top priority for the future.

This context, and the febrile mood that accompanies it, bring very specific expectations of businesses and brands.

There are two ‘must-haves’: treating your staff well and caring for their wellbeing, and, of course, doing the same for your customers.

The public is acutely tuned to who is and isn’t doing this – they’re in blame mode, remember, and will judge those organisations that seem to fall short very harshly indeed.

That heightened sense of morality means they are hypersensitive to businesses that appear to be putting profit first at this difficult time.

But there is significant reward for organisations trying to contribute to the collective national effort, such as EE offering free data for NHS workers, or Burberry making NHS face masks.

Unsurprisingly, all this has implications for communications, too.

Sympathetic reading of the mood is crucial and authenticity has never been more important, especially when it comes to tone of voice.

As one diarist put it: “If I hear one more advert start with a gloomy man saying: ‘Now more than ever…’ – I think I’ll scream.”

Deborah Mattinson is a founding partner of BritainThinks


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