Spare us the flag-waving; that’s only one of the five ‘Fs’ in political comms

Whenever you see a UK Government minister nowadays, you invariably see a flag. What’s going on?

Government ministers must balance the flag-waving with the other 'Fs', argues John McTernan
Government ministers must balance the flag-waving with the other 'Fs', argues John McTernan

Is it ‘lockdown fever’ – spending too much time in the home and getting bored with the usual Zoom backdrops? Or a brand strategy to promote post-Brexit Britain?

In a way, it’s a bit of both. Lockdown has put severe limitations on the possibility for politicians “pressing the flesh”, many announcements are backed up by Zoom rather than visits, and the post-Brexit potential for branding Government actions as part of “Global Britain” is emphasised by the display of the Union Flag.

But the Flag is just one of the five “Fs” that define post-pandemic political communications. It’s the one that says boldly and clearly: “Britain Can.” It is supported, however, by four more pillars of modern comms.

The first of these is a strong and optimistic sense of the Future. The desire to 'build back better' comes from many sources. Community volunteering has revealed new strengths in communities – bonds which shouldn’t lapse when we all return to the “new normal”.

Living locally has also revealed the value of public spaces – particularly the parks, which are our “green lungs” – fuelling demands for a new and better public realm.

Learning at first hand, whether from home schooling or the vaccination rollout, of the commitment of public servants has drawn attention to the hidden infrastructure we have too often taken for granted. The vast majority want to keep the best of what we have done and become.

The second – Fairness – is the principle that runs through the future we want to build together. From 'levelling up' to Black Lives Matter and Reclaim the Streets, equality has become the zeitgeist. The pandemic has shone a harsh light on the status quo, highlighting poor housing, precarious employment patterns and inequalities in access to health care.

The third F is the feeling everyone will have when we leave lockdown: Freedom, and even checking in and clearing security at an airport will feel liberating. This is the paradox at the heart of the pandemic. The public has been remarkably compliant to the strictest injunctions – Brits, it tums out, do want to be told what to do.

But the spirit has been one of sacrifice for the collective good. It is not a mandate for a renewal of the nanny state, with a finger-wagging approach to social issues. Prime Minister Boris Johnson may, at times, use fanciful rhetoric about “freeborn” citizens, but he taps into the desire of people to shape their own lives.

And it is the Prime Minister’s flashes of humour that demonstrate the fourth pillar – Feelings. To show empathy now is central to leadership. It demonstrates emotional intelligence (EQ), it enhances authority by showing that politicians ‘get it’, and it seals the deal.

The discourse around the Government’s adoption of the flag has been narrow so far – and it has often missed the point. Some have seen it as an old-fashioned attempt to close down debate with a demand to rally patriotically round the flag.

But flags have multiple meanings – very different when draped over a sports fan’s shoulders than when on a flagpole on a public building. It is the multidimensional richness of the union flag that is being mined when it is brought front and centre in the emerging landscape of post-pandemic political communications.

That’s why it is buttressed by the other elements of Future, Fairness, Freedom, and Feelings. However eye-catching the use of flags may be, they are not one-dimensional.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

Thumbnail credit: Getty

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