The government’s message on controlling coronavirus while leaving lockdown is fatally unclear, and only expert intervention can avoid a disastrous failure.
“Can I go and see my two sons, who I have not seen in 10 weeks? Can I go and see them today and maintain social distance? Yes or no?”
That was the question Piers Morgan asked Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen on his TV show yesterday. Yes, was the MP’s answer. At which point Morgan noted that the correct response, according to new government rules, should actually have been no.
“There is no clarity. It is a load of old flannel talking about ‘controlling the virus’,” Morgan concluded, as Bridgen blushed uncomfortably in front of 2 million people.
Morgan is correct. Put to one side your feelings about coronavirus and the government for a moment – whatever they may be – and just look at the clarity of communication around the UK’s new public messages. It is a total disgrace.
And I say that without an ounce of political bias. I hate all of them equally and always have. I am not trying to score political points in any way. Boris and co are our current elected officials and we need their leadership in this incredibly difficult time. Part of that leadership challenge involves communicating and controlling public behaviour in the tricky weeks ahead.
Locking everything down with the arrival of Covid-19 was hard, but the UK – like most countries – responded admirably, if belatedly, to the threat. But that same government now faces the unenviable task of gradually and tentatively bringing the country out of lockdown.
The stakes remain incredibly high, the challenge is now even greater. We have enough warnings already about what a resurgence in the virus might do to the population to know that the next phase in virus management is just as important as the initial one.
Lack of clarity
But the government is blowing it. Take the much trumpeted new Covid Alert Level the prime minister introduced as a central part of his new coronavirus monitoring system on Sunday night. It combines the R number that measures the effective reproduction rate of the virus with the total current number of infections. The aim is to make this number a single data point that can instantly reflect the state of the virus in the UK.
Except, as many statisticians have already noted, it’s total pants. The R number is an average rate of infection per person. It is currently hovering around the 0.5 to 0.9 level according to the prime minister (again thanks for the clarity Boris).
There have been 227,000 infections in the UK and, based on swab sampling rates, the best estimate suggests the current number of infections in England sits at 136,000 people. So, our all-important Covid Alert Level is 136,000.9. If the R number leapt to the kind of pandemic crisis numbers we saw in Wuhan during February our Covid Alert Level would jump from 136,000.9 to 136,006.5.
You see my point?
And when Boris introduced this stupid formula on Sunday night, why did he not have the actual data to set the benchmark up for future reference? I’d venture because he cannot accurately measure either of the essential statistics required.
We don’t actually know with a reasonable degree of certainty what the R number or the actual number of infections are. And by showing a nonsensical scale without any data, he just bemused the British public and made it doubly hard to adopt proper benchmarks as 2020 progresses.
“Boris has to learn quickly that strategy is about sacrifice, communications is about clarity and leadership is about both”
And then there are Boris’s qualifications. And I am not talking about his 2.1 in Classics from Oxford. Throughout his attempt on Sunday to issue clear and resounding instructions to the British people, his message was confounded by conditions and contingencies that rendered his message unintelligible.
On Sunday he did not offer the population a roadmap to recovery. It was “the first sketch of a roadmap”. It was not a vision of what could be done but a “general consensus of what we could do”. It was not a plan but a “conditional plan”. These weren’t clear instructions they were a “change of emphasis” that “we hope people will act on”.
Martin Luther-King did not imagine a number of potential future scenarios in which some of them eventuated with a degree of potential equality for some African Americans. He had a dream.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not tell the American people to consider the possibility that some degree of trepidation might ultimately affect the country’s economic future. He told them that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. The only thing.
John F. Kennedy did not predict his country would draft some initial ideas about one day perhaps attempting to get to the Moon. He told Congress he would put a man on the Moon before the decade was out.
Boris has to learn quickly that strategy is about sacrifice and communications is about clarity. And leadership is about both. His abject lack of clarity diluted his attempt to direct the British public to anything other than distraction on Sunday night. His speech was a disgrace.
People must avoid public transport – if at all possible. Work from home – when you can. Go to work – if you can’t work from home. If you do go to work do so by car – if possible. Play sports – but only with members of your own household.
Boris Johnson needs to get a grip – if that it is at all possible. Leadership is not speaking loudly and staring at the camera with forced determination, it is giving clear and unambiguous instructions to those who are following.
His attempt to instruct the public is in tatters. He has one Covid Alert level consisting of two distinct numbers. He has three steps that will occur as the UK emerges from lockdown but five threat levels – one to five – and we are currently at level four. All clear?
The communications chaos extends to the government’s new slogan. ‘Stay Home’ has been replaced with ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives’. The government has replaced a clear and relevant instruction with three new ones that make no sense. Stay alert to what? How does one control a virus? You want me to save lives? How?
Almost everyone saw the new communication for what it was: a dog’s breakfast made from equal parts inanity and idiocy. “For Scotland right now, given the fragility of the progress we’ve made, given the critical point that we are at, then it would be catastrophic for me to drop the ‘Stay at Home’ message,” Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon responded.
“I am particularly not prepared to do it in favour of a message that is vague and imprecise,” she went on to add.
The government’s communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, was on hand to insist that everything was perfectly clear but – in what is rapidly becoming a trademark of this government – he made things even more opaque. “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible,” he told the BBC. “But stay alert when you do go out, by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”
Scotland, like Wales and Northern Ireland, will stick with Stay Home. Who could blame them? But that act of intransigence merely adds more uncertainty to the growing sense of chaos surrounding public instructions.
It is crucial we marketers stay out of discussions around coronavirus and its transmission. We make fools of ourselves when we discuss the nature of the virus or the optimum medical responses to it, as if it were a natural extension of our marketing and advertising expertise. Too many good men and women from our discipline have looked like arsehats in recent weeks on social media with their well-meaning, but ignorant, attempts to discuss epidemiological issues that are clearly beyond them.
But marketers can be useful and expert when it comes to communication, attitude formation and behaviour change. It is what we do. The UK might currently have one of the world’s worst rates of coronavirus infection but it also has some of the greatest communications professionals on the planet. Despite my criticisms above, I genuinely don’t want Boris and the government to fail in their mission to bring the UK out of the crisis as painlessly and professionally as possible.
But they need help. Now.
Ad industry intervention
Remember The Dirty Dozen? It was a dodgy war move from 1967 based on a real group of mercenaries actually named the Filthy Thirteen – that’s another story. The movie describes the recruitment of a group of dangerous prisoners who are asked to head behind enemy lines to kill Nazis in exchange for clemency. Only they have the requisite psychopathic tendencies and disinterest in personal safety to get the job done. It’s dated, hugely offensive, but it’s got Lee Marvin in it so its inherently superior to every other war movie ever made.
It is time for the British advertising industry to step in and form its own ‘dirty dozen’. Our government clearly needs helps translating complex public strategy into a simple, executable brief. That means it needs account planners that do this for a living.
I would nominate Lucy Jameson, David Golding and his sparring partner James Murphy, and Bridget Angear. The best in the business could quickly help the government and its medical experts crystallise its strategy and turn it into a clear and tight set of priorities.
“Marketers have spent the last five years banging on about brand purpose and trying to save the world with chocolate biscuits. Well, now there is a real chance to make a difference and help society”
Then I would bring in proper creative talent to translate this set of priorities into a message that resonates with the British people and drives behaviour change. Rory Sutherland is a given. So are John Hegarty and Rosie Arnold. Let’s have Dave Trott too.
Finally, rather than a skanky series of fluorescent posters that look like they have been made by the remedial class of year 10 underachievers at an underperforming secondary school, let’s get a proper mix of media expertise to take the new creative campaign to the UK population with maximum effect and immediate reach. We will need Mike Florence and Steve Gladdis. And, from inside their walled gardens, Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn and Google’s Amy Brown.
It’s a new dirty dozen made up of some of the greatest communications thinkers of our generation. Let’s politely ask the people running the government’s current Covid communications to fuck off and let’s get these 12 people around to Number 10 as soon as possible.
Marketers and advertising people have spent the last five years banging on about brand purpose and trying to save the world with chocolate biscuits and moisturising cream. Well, now there is a real chance to make a difference and help society. We cannot sit back and do nothing. Our country is facing its biggest threat in a lifetime and simple, effective communications will – quite literally – save thousands of lives in the months to come.
It’s time to reach out to the experts. It’s time for advertising’s dirty dozen.
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