Coronavirus

The omnishambles of government communication

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‘We do not care about trying to “control the narrative” and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by “comms grid”.’

Dominic Cummings wrote that in January 2020, in his infamous ‘weirdos and misfits’ blog post calling on communications experts to join the government.

Giving two fingers to traditional media and having a PR strategy that relies on background briefings to well-behaved journalists might have worked for Brexit but when you’re implementing a pandemic strategy that relies on public knowledge and public compliance, it’s not so good.

Pre-coronavirus, the hype among politicians was eschewing the media and speaking directly to the crowd through social media. Trump pioneered it, with his non-governmental Twitter account that was used for both celebrity spats and communicating presidential announcements. With a platform to speak directly to his supporters – and his opponents – Trump decided that he didn’t need the traditional press. Thus, “fake news media” was born.

The UK government and Number 10 hasn’t been quite so forthcoming in their dislike for the traditional media. Nonetheless, it did form part of their comms strategy. From excluding journalists from briefings in February, to Twitter tagging journalists and rebutting them on official Ministry accounts.

The message from Number 10 is clear: We don’t respect the media, and you shouldn’t either.

But now they’ve built their coronavirus strategy on a series of complex, specific regulations. Local lockdowns were the prime example. Unless the public checked gov.uk every day, the only way they could find out about new local restrictions was through the press, and in particular, the local press. But when the governments messaging has been “don’t trust them, we don’t need them” pre-pandemic, that creates an issue.

Even when the government introduces national rules and lockdowns, they still rely on the media to communicate the nuances of this. The BBC runs Q&A sessions with experts on the rules, they post simple explainers of what you can and can’t do.

The newspapers create SEO articles answering common questions. Search Google for “Can I go on holiday?” and the top results are Sky News, The Independent, The Sun and more newspapers. Gov.uk is nowhere to be found.

There’s no better evidence of the government’s media shunning strategy coming back to bite them than on mask-wearing. When you communicate the message that experts aren’t always right and the media shouldn’t be trusted, you’ll find yourself with a population of supporters that don’t trust experts and don’t trust journalists. That’s fine when you’re trying to convince people to vote for trade policy, but harder when you need them to take life-saving actions like wearing masks or staying indoors.

Cummings and Johnson are now facing the consequences of a culture they created: one of ignoring experts, distrusting authority, hating the media. And so, when people refuse to listen to their rules that they are backing up with expertise and communicating through the media – are they really surprised?

The announcement of a nationwide lockdown couldn’t have gone worse.

First, the news leaked. Unlike previous governments, where such a leak would have been a rare catastrophe, in this instance, many on Twitter assumed it was a briefing from Cummings himself or a tactical play to gauge reaction before announcing a lockdown. It was, according to Number 10, neither. But it shows how far the shambolic communications strategy has dented trust.

Then, there was the press conference itself. It may not seem significant, but the issue of timing was significant: particularly on a Saturday night when the public suspects it is their last Saturday night for a while. How many viewers tuned in at 5pm, only to give up by 5.45pm and go to the pub? How many tuned in at 4, at 5, then at 6, and eventually switched something else on for all the waiting around.

Dominic Cummings was 30 minutes late for his rose garden press conference in May. That might have worked to get the nation to switch off and enjoy their bank holiday, and avoid his car crash confessional.

But by being late to his lockdown press conference, Boris Johnson missed the chance to explain the logic for the lockdown. Before he’d even announced it, journalists had pored over the leaks while private Facebook groups had decided they wouldn’t take part, and families had made their decision about whether they’d keep meeting up or not.

Boris Johnson could have explained this was the last chance to save Christmas. He could have shown the nation the stark data that led to this decision. But instead, the public made up their mind hours before he’d even entered the briefing room.

A coronavirus strategy that relies on public compliance must win public trust – and you can’t win their trust if you don’t speak to them early.

How the government communicates has never mattered more. Their coronavirus strategy relies on public understanding and public compliance. Months of turning the country against the media and the experts have sorely disadvantaged Johnson and Cummings who are now struggling to communicate their rules effectively and are likely to face huge challenges around public compliance.

Dominic Cummings always said he didn’t care about controlling the narrative, and he certainly hasn’t controlled it, so now he’ll pay the price.

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