History will record the Government’s greatest comms failures over COVID-19

The last year will forever be known for the ‘C’ word; for me, in the UK’s particularly tragic case, it’s also about communications and the three Cs: clarity, consistency and credibility.

The government has ignored the fundamentals of comms during the pandemic, argues Alan Twigg
The government has ignored the fundamentals of comms during the pandemic, argues Alan Twigg

Clarity, consistency and credibility: all of these should have anchored our Government comms – connected to a clear call to action.

It’s not easy governing in unprecedented circumstances, but that can’t be used as a defence when, 12 months in, the simple fundamentals of communication are ignored.

This week, with the South African variant of COVID-19 in numerous UK postcodes, Matt Hancock urged 350,000 residents to “stay at home unless they absolutely have to leave” – which is open to interpretation.

The Border Quarantine Scheme was announced on 27 January, when the Government said more details would be given that week.

The Prime Minister said this Wednesday that Matt Hancock would announce the next day, only for No. 10 to say it would make no announcement. Cue confused mayhem.

Look at Perth, Australia last week – one COVID-19 case and the city flipped into complete lockdown: two million people home for five days.

While Australia's response is not perfect, its citizens listen, understand the ask and go with it.

The UK Government is ambiguous and uncertain when it should be simple, explain clearly, and build belief.

It proclaimed we wouldn’t need a second lockdown because the tier system was working; but within days we needed another lockdown, because the tier system wasn’t working.

We could mix with other households in some circumstances, not others.

Masks weren’t required in schools, then mandatory within days.

It changed the mantra ‘Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives’ to ‘Stay Alert’, in the hope it would reflect more positively on the PM’s personal reputation and desire to be seen as ‘easing up’ on us.

The core problem is that he desperately wants to be liked.

These times can’t be about being nice; whether it’s exam U-turns, the comms shambles of Christmas or the bewildering double U-turn on Marcus Rashford’s free meals for schoolchildren campaign.

People go with changes or bad news – if they understand and trust you.

How can trust be maintained if you tell them the Test and Trace regime is world-beating, when it’s stuttering?

When leaks and private briefings to media contradict the public statements – within 24 hours – how can trust remain?

Under-promise, over-deliver – something account executives learn in week one.

We have more tools to communicate effectively in an integrated way than ever before.

In late July, Matt Hancock announced a lockdown in Greater Manchester and parts of the North West – on Twitter, less than three hours before it was due to start at midnight, when no other media had been briefed. The Government was surprised by the ensuing hysteria?

Soft skills are powerful in good communication. Where’s humility in these crisis moments?

We’ve now had an apology – not because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing left to do.

As vaccination, in the hands of our wonderful NHS, powers ahead – offering relief for No. 10's communicators – history won’t ignore one of our greatest case studies of crisis communications failure.

Alan Twigg is a senior marcomms consultant and founder of twiggy+

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