COVID: Communicating the crisis

27 Mar 2020

We won’t be offering our ‘hot-take’ on the Government’s Covid-19 strategy but we will share some thoughts on how the Government is communicating the crisis.

Read our latest blogpost by DRD Partner Duncan Fulton

Communicating the crisis

At Snapshot we are many things, but epidemiologists we are not. So we won’t be offering our ‘hot-take’ on the Government’s Covid-19 strategy (we’ll let others bandy around ‘two weeks behind’ with abandon). But we do want to share some thoughts on how it is communicating the crisis.  

We’re barely in the prologue but already we know many of the heroes and villains of the piece. The undisputed bravery of the NHS, the key workers, the cleaners, the supermarket assistants, the shopkeepers, the deliverymen, the businesses pumping their profits back into communities, those standing by their employees through it all  versus the profiteers and the price gougers, the stockpilers, the publicans and celebrity chefs who have commandeered the life rafts for themselves.  

We have Sirs Whitty and Vallance, battle hardened Medieval Knights, imbued with wisdom, gravitas and authority, flanking a Prime Minister who at times has matched the seriousness of the moment, but at others has seemed to be straining to deny himself the quip forming on his lips. The odd “sedulous” has slipped out but otherwise he’s kept just the right side of serious. 

But overall what do we think of the Government’s comms effort? The received wisdom seems to be that it has tended to the slow, vague, and contradictory: slow to convene the now daily pressers; vague in much of the detail of their plans; and contradictory in some of the measures (many say belatedly) introduced.  

But at Snapshot we politely disagree. 

Leadership in politics  as in business  is about taking big decisions with limited information. The consequences of what the Government does and says at this moment is almost unfathomable in terms of potential loss of life, our way of life, and our economic and financial future. The unthinkable is now policy. A Prime Minister has put the country in lockdown, while a Chancellor of six weeks has just announced a set of measures to protect the employed and self-employed alike that is genuinely unprecedented. A legitimate communications criticism could be levelled at the Treasury that the scale of the Government’s assistance package has barely seemed to register. Forget the end-of-pier show that was Brexit. To borrow from Matt Chorley at The Times – THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL.   

How the PM and Chancellor must wish they had the certainty of their critics. They must balance the emotional and the rational, the head and the heart. They must instil seriousness but not outright fear, and offer hope without levity. A nation with a long and proud history of liberty is confined to barracks, with an exeat granted for four simple exemptions  which are in turn contorted and criticised in attempts to find any possible loophole. All while an offer to essentially underwrite 80% of income for the vast majority of workers affected is nit-picked.  A Tory government, remember, is in effect incentivising people not to work. In these extraordinary times can anything be enough? 

It has also been a study in who we believe. Boris has few admirers in the MSM, and even fewer on Twitter where his caricature has stuck. But recent polling (and before that, arguably, December’s General Election result) begs to differ. Approval rating for the Government’s response is 93% according to YouGov, with the PM’s personal ratings at +20%. More than 27 million people are estimated to have tuned into his down the barrel statement on Monday evening, and few could have come away questioning the conviction of a Prime Minister battling with no good choices.   

Rishi Sunak has done very well, benefitting from being young, almost unknown, and as such much more difficult to project prejudices upon. He sounds calm, clear and authoritative and we have yet to become familiar with the sound of this Chancellor breaking promises.   

This week we have also witnessed a rather more high stakes University Challenge  Imperial vs Oxford in the battle of Covid-19 modelling. Imperial’s Dr Neil Ferguson, author of last weekend’s report that suggested a potential death toll of 250,000 and precipitated a dramatic change in Government policy, seemed this week to both revise down his figures to closer to 1/10 of that number. He also criticised Oxford’s Professor Gutpa’s hypothesis that a large proportion of the population may already have or have had the virus. The parsing of complex statistical modelling, based on data-sets that are at once limited and rapidly evolving, may feel terribly big-endean vs little-endian for most of us. But that is the communications context and challenge for the Government  they want to be scienceled, but what science should be leading them? Social media seems to have a typically unambiguous view. 

A final thought: we have wasted words in the way a stockpiler is now throwing away food. Over the past few years we have been profligate in our language, we have found ‘crisis’ in every drama and a storm in every tea-cup. We lost, temporarily we hope, the significance and meaning of the words we need to define this crisis, and the sense of urgency and scale that only now is dawning on us all. That is not a fault that can be laid at this Government’s door, but at our collective willingness to reach for linguistic extremes, which has made it harder both to communicate and calibrate our response to the enormity of what we are today facing.