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20 ways the government can improve its messaging over coronavirus

British Retail Consortium Chief Executive Helen Dickinson, Environment Secretary George Eustice and National Medical Director at NHS England Stephen Powis during the press conference at 10 Downing Street. (Photo by Jonathan Brady-WPA Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Former Downing Street director of communications ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the government can improve its messaging over coronavirus.

Given I’ve written thousands of words on my blog of well-intentioned advice about the government briefing operation, which seems to get worse not better, I’m not sure another ’20 ways to improve your communications strategy’ memo from me will have much influence. But here goes anyway.

1. More openness and transparency. Go for a major shift on the provision of data. The daily slides on transport were useful at the start. Far more important now are cases and deaths, NHS capacity, testing and the economic consequences of lockdown. Provide data before being asked.

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2. Get parliament back up and running as fully as possible consistent with social distancing or whatever measures are taken as the lockdown eases. People know this is going to be a long-term issue, that you will have to keep one foot hovering over the brake even as the other presses on the accelerator. Share the data and the science without it being asked for. We are not all going to read it, let alone understand it, but at least publish it and tell us where we can find it.

3. Treat people as adults. The relentless repetition of slogans, or the formulaic opening to all briefings, was fine for when you were first pushing a message. Now it feels too much like you are still in campaign mode, not government mode, let alone crisis management mode. There are ways of repeating a message without sounding like robots. Starting the briefings with the exact same script is no longer necessary. Go straight to detail, data and fact.

4. Be honest about trade-offs and choices. Take people into your confidence about the real choices being faced. When the issue was predominantly a public health one, people were prepared to leave it to experts. But the longer this goes on the more people start to worry about longer term issues. Be honest about some of the trade-offs between suppression of the disease and mitigation. Be honest that some of these are economic and political judgments, not just scientific, and start to share that thinking.

5. Broaden out from journalists. Some of the best communications I have seen have come from those leaders who engaged in briefings not just with media, but the broader public, and doctors and scientists.

6. Stop finessing the death rates. Stop making direct comparisons with countries that are operating vastly different methods of calculations. The public prefer the unvarnished truth and can cope with it better than the sense that a varnished truth is being dragged kicking and screaming. These issues are too big to imagine people will have forgotten by the time a post-crisis analysis takes place. So be honest now.

7. Apologise for past mistakes. It has been embarrassing to watch ministers continue to pretend that the strategy has been unfolding seamlessly or to think that promises made about protective equipment can just be replaced by new and bigger pledges when the old ones have not been met. It was embarrassing to watch Priti Patel use the word ‘sorry’ without apologising. Being ‘sorry if they think that’ is the worst form of weaselling. Fair and reasonable people – the majority – will think better of you, as the French did of president Macron, if you admit that as the crisis rushed in you did not get everything right. Apologise in particular to front line NHS staff and social care workers.

8. Under-promise, over deliver. If they fail on the 100,000 tests a day target, you have a real problem now. You are becoming cavalier because you have not felt that much heat for failing to meet previous targets on this and other issues. Boris Johnson told the Commons on March 25 that social care workers would have protective equipment by the end of that week… that is several weeks ago. Another scandal, barely noticed. The government has had good headlines for the promises made. But failure to deliver on them will catch up with you. Dial down on promises, dial up on delivery.

9. Show real empathy. I know I am probably unusual in having watched every minute of every briefing, apart from one of Alok Sharma’s when I gave up half way through. But the formulaic trotting out of grisly figures, followed by ‘our thoughts and prayers are with …’ has simply not met the gravity of the moment. To respect lives lost, tell stories of those who have lost them. Pay proper tribute. Empathy must be real, and I simply have not felt it, other than about the prime minister’s care. Empathy is about not just saying but doing what it needed to make sure those who are suffering have what they need. And for heaven’s sake, put an end to these ‘Father of the Nation’ pitches from ministers most people have never heard of.

10. Appoint ministers to key tasks. It is clear that a very small number of ministers – Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove – 
are carrying the bulk of the responsibility. They need more and better support, both from the Whitehall system, but also from colleagues. A minister should have been deputed to work purely on testing; another on broadening capacity.

11. Allow medics to speak out. There is a real hypocrisy in ministers being photographed clapping the NHS each Thursday, while nurses and doctors are being gagged. The effort to shut down voices like consultant Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who made a public appeal for protective equipment, and died from coronavirus a few days later, is wrong, and will be counter productive.

12. Accept the consequences of actions. I have seen both Matt Hancock, and Dominic Raab say that they do not accept that our higher death rate is linked to a slower reaction than other countries to the virus. This risks making them seem absurd. I think we know that if we were at the bottom of the European death rate tables, not the top, you would definitely be accepting a link between government action and consequence.

13. Signal a broader shift of attitude and policy. Indicate that the new found respect for who and what key and essential workers are will be reflected in a revision of the immigration policy, for example. Boris Johnson should also disown the right-wing think tank whose launch at the Foreign Office he got the taxpayer to fund, and which is dedicated to breaking up the NHS to allow the American market greater access to it – ‘a noble fight’ as he put it at the time.

14. Dial down the language of war. It is a global fight against a virus, not a war. We are not going to defeat it by being better people than the Germans, by grit and determination and resilience, but by trusting leaders and scientists to make the right, rational decisions. Most of us have been at home, on a sofa, not in a trench, or flying a plane.

15. Step up international cooperation. This has been one of the worst aspects of the whole thing. Having Trump as US president has made international cooperation harder, of course. But, as Gordon Brown showed during the global financial crisis, global leadership can come from the UK. We need that now.

16. Dial down the soap opera. All but the evils and the crazies were pleased the prime minister was out of hospital, and I know there will be a temptation to feed the media desire for colour and drama about his recovery. Resist.

17. Pre-empt a public inquiry. Whilst staying totally focused on the crisis here and now, indicate that there should and will be a full independent public inquiry as soon as we are through the worst. Do not be dragged kicking and screaming to this too.

18. Get the experts to stick to expertise. The experts should resist straying into messaging better left to politicians. I did not think it was sensible for Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, to talk of ‘green shoots’. I did not like Ruth May speaking about issues that went well beyond her role as chief nurse. Ministers should try to resist the temptation to use experts as political human shields.

19. Think ahead to the issues that you know are going to become major problems down the track, and set in train the work required to deal with them all.

20. Keep some of your best people out of the day to day. Some of the brightest and best should be thinking about, and planning for, the next phases of strategy.

It may well all fall on deaf ears. But I feel better for having written it.

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