There’s nothing like clarity in communications. A statement reinforced by Monday’s announcement from the PM. Because that was nothing like clarity in communications.
It started well — if stating the obvious is starting well. Let’s be generous. Call it a recap. An acknowledgement of where we are and how things stand, finishing on a strong note:
“And so I know — you know — that it would be madness now to throw away that achievement by allowing a second spike. We must stay alert. We must continue to control the virus and save lives.”
HERE COMES THE 'BUT'...
We knew the ‘but’ was coming – not least because rumours were rife that some easing of the lockdown measures were on the way. It went on, however, for about three minutes, covering ‘the shape of a plan’, ‘the first sketch of a road map’, and ‘a sense of the way ahead’.
So far, so vague. But now we’re getting to the conditions that need to be satisfied before we can make any changes. Great. This is relevant. This is definitely more like— wait. Is that a slide?
Yes. It’s a slide. It’s not even a good one. Not the call I’d have made, but okay. The info was relevant. I’ll let it go.
Then Boris fluffs it, wandering into alert levels. R rates. Testing and tracing. Data and detection. Not one bit of it relevant to the audience.
REACHING - AND MISSING - THE POINT
The PM has now been talking for seven minutes, and he’s only just got to the point.
No. Now is not the time to end lockdown.
Well. Like it or not, at least we know where we stand. Oh, but hang on. He’s still talking. Oh, we are making some changes. Let’s hear more.
So… wait. If you can’t work from home, you should be ‘actively encouraged’ to go back to work. ‘Actively encouraged’ by whom, Boris?
Oh, and we shouldn’t use public transport? Alright. But what if we don’t have a car? Or if we live too far away to cycle or walk? Oh, transport operators will be following distance measures. So it’s safe. But hold on, no, he’s saying not to use them again.
Never mind that, though, because apparently we can now have unlimited time outside. Sunbathing, sports — we can even drive to ‘other destinations’. We don’t know which ones, but who cares? Load up the car, kids, we’re going to the beach! We’ll be fine, right? Everyone will totally obey the social distancing rules, right?
Can’t see any real problems arising there.
Hey, look! It’s a second stage! School’s going back, eh? Brilliant. And hey, kids with exams next year might be going back before the holidays.
And look — OMG this is brilliant — pubs will be opening in July.
That’s not what he said. I know that. What he said was ‘we might, possibly, if nothing goes wrong, maybe, if a whole bunch of conditions are satisfied, think about this stuff. As long as there’s social distancing.’
But it’s what people heard.
And now it’s too late to go back to ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. It’s out. The expectation has been raised.
Because that’s how communication works. People hear what they expect to hear. It’s human nature. And that’s why it’s vital to keep messages short, sharp and to the point.
THE RALLYING CRY
So, after presenting this big mess of mixed messages, Boris wraps it all up in the most questionable campaign cry since ‘you can take our lives but you’ll never take our freedom’.
For what, Boris? Space invaders? Bears? Cracks in the pavement?
We’ve gone from the supremely clear instruction ‘stay at home’ to some kind of non-specific, up-for-interpretation, cop-out that, crucially, puts all the responsibility onto other people.
‘Stay alert,’ it proclaims, ‘Or you’ve only yourselves to blame!’
BRING IN THE BACKUP
So much for the speech. Dreadful as it was, at least it set out a unified approach for the whole UK, right? Boris was very clear. He’s PM of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. He’s consulted all four nations. There’s a consensus.
Except that… no, there isn’t. Because this announcement was immediately followed by the three devolved leaders going, “Er… no.”
The First Ministers of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales were all in total agreement on one thing: the ‘stay at home’ message remained unchanged. NI and Wales had some very small relaxations of the rules. Scotland had none.
So now three-quarters of the nation’s leaders are in disagreement with the PM.
Schools are surprised and confused. Businesses all over the country wondering if they can or can’t open. Tourist spots are in terror of a sudden influx. And workers in the construction and manufacturing industries are fearing for their safety and their jobs.
Good job, Boris. And hey, a big shout-out to your comms team.
You’ll have gathered that this whole debacle has left me miffed. And it’s nothing to do with politics, or Boris, or anything other than the fact that at this level, it should have been so much better. The people behind this mess should have delivered so much more.
I’ve been in communications for a long time. My particular specialism is health and safety comms. So I know how this stuff is meant to go. And here’s the kicker: it’s really not that hard. Yes, it takes a particular set of skills to create excellent messaging and make it look great. But the essential principles aren’t difficult to grasp.
- When comms really matter, keep them personal. Don’t hide behind slides that add nothing.
- Get to the point. The human attention span is short. Grab it while you can.
- Be clear. Tell people exactly what you need them to do.
- Focus on the now. Don’t wander into maybes. They dilute your message.
- Don’t make claims you can’t back up. You’ll lose credibility and sow dissension. That’s not how to lead in a crisis.
To finish, let me make clear what our ostensible leader did not.
Stay at home as much as possible.
Stay sensible about going out.
Stay at least 2m away from others.
Stay considerate of yourselves and others.
Stay clear in your communications with your workforce.
And above all else, stay safe.