26 June 2020
DRD’s Senior Associate Fflur Sheppard looks back at the impact of the Downing Street Covid-19 press conferences, which ended this week – and ponders what might come next…
Our daily dose of coronavirus press conferences has come to an end. Weaned off our dependency to weekdays only for the past month, we’ll now be going cold turkey until the government and its advisers have “something really important to say.”
Since Monday 16 March we’ve had the opportunity to tune into more than 90 daily press briefings. Despite his spell in both self-isolation and intensive care, the Prime Minister racked up 16 stints behind the lectern. Our most-seen minister was health secretary Matt Hancock with 24 appearances, followed by foreign secretary Dominic Raab on 12 – all manageable figures for even our home secretary, whose innumeracy led to one of the briefings’ best gaffes.
They came about following a few days of confusion about what the official health advice was at the start of the outbreak. A key issue was an anonymous briefing given to ITV’s Robert Peston suggesting that the over-70s would need to stay at home for months — a line which at the time contradicted official policy and other messaging. The Daily Mail et al had a field day, the government desperately needed to get control of its messages and their timing, and the daily press conference was born.
Take-up was initially impressive. 26 million people tuned in for the first major lockdown announcement, on closing businesses and schools, but by the end of May, viewing figures were under three million – so did something go wrong, or did they simply run their course?
Their impact in those early spring days was undoubtedly emphatic. Boris Johnson “levelling” with us that many families would lose loved ones before their time packed a punch. Each time we saw chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, reminded us (if not Michael Gove) why we had always liked and respected experts all along.
The appearance of these and other experts (Snapshot’s favourite being the deputy chief medical officer who openly challenged the behaviour of Durham-bound Dominic Cummings) was a savvy communications decision. They were relied upon as the government sought to demonstrate scientific and medical support for its approach.
Clever too was the introduction of questions from the public via video, giving a sense of engagement in what was always essentially a one-way broadcast.
Whether we felt we needed one or not, a daily briefing a day to keep the virus at bay didn’t initially feel like over-communication. They were intended to make us feel that the government was on top of every detail, sharing every development, and chasing down every shipment of PPE… which, of course, leads us to some of the pitfalls of providing a running commentary – the expectation for news when there isn’t any, the risks of different ministers delivering mixed messaging, and the traps you can set for yourself (and your colleagues) when you over-promise and under-deliver.
Over time, it was probably inevitable that, as a viewing public, we would both tune in less and pay less attention to what was being said. But if there’s a defining moment that led to an actual and mental switching of the channel, it was the communications cardinal sin that was committed in mid-May: the well-understood “stay at home” slogan was replaced with the much-mocked “stay alert.” Patience, worn thin through weeks of confinement in said homes, reached breaking point with such a vague directive. Memes in their plenty appeared of what “staying alert” meant – and as we all now know, once something goes viral, good luck regaining control.
So, what next? Now off-air, will Sir Patrick and Prof Witty grow lockdown beards? How will households across the country know that it’s almost time for tea? More importantly, how worried will we be for our newly-promised freedoms when we’re told “something really important” will be announced that evening?
Going forward, how the government chooses to communicate during “local flare-ups” (such as those in Anglesey, Leicester and Cleckheaton) and in the event of a “second wave” may be seen as a barometer for how they’re coping with the crisis. A return to over-communication, or muddled slogans, or ministers that don’t seem to be on top of the data, could frighten the viewing public as much as a rising R-rate. Calm, clear and consistent communications will be what we want to see.
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