Far from the moment of clarity and reassurance many were hoping for, Boris Johnson’s Sunday evening address to the nation seemed to raise more questions than it answered. What day were people supposed to return to work? How many individuals were allowed to meet outdoors?
Metro’s front page on Monday invoked the prime minister’s passion for classics with the headline “It’s all Greek to us Boris”, and the Mirror described lockdown Britain as “chaos”. From a public communications perspective, it was not – it is fair to say – a success.
“I am normally a Boris fan and I backed him for the Conservative leadership, but I thought his address yesterday was a dog’s dinner in terms of communication,” said Chris Whitehouse, the managing director of the Whitehouse Consultancy communications agency. “It sowed doubt, confusion and uncertainty.”
Ahead of the prime minister’s speech on Sunday evening – an embargoed copy of which was shared with the media – government sources briefed political journalists with details of some additional measures that were included in the 50-page guidance to be published 24 hours later.
“I would have published the document first, embargoed to the media so they had time to read it and see precisely what it said, and then I would have kept the messaging very simple and very clear,” said Whitehouse.
Newspapers ran numerous stories throughout last week based on briefings from government about the restrictions that were set to be lifted. “I think they got themselves into a fix by hyping the event before they perhaps knew they had something that was worth hyping,” said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, who worked as Treasury communications director among other senior civil service jobs.
One former Conservative Number 10 adviser said that when it came to matters of public health, communications needed to be transparent and on the record. “There should be no briefing here and briefing there. Nothing should be done through anonymous sources,” he said, acknowledging the irony in the fact he was speaking off the record.
“From a messaging point of view, this stage of the crisis is more difficult, because it has to be more nuanced,” he said. “It’s not so clear cut, which is another reason why the documents should go out with any announcement.”
It emerged on Saturday that the official government message to “stay at home” would be replaced with “stay alert”, which provoked instant ridicule. “Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?” tweeted the author JK Rowling.
YouGov polling for ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Monday showed that less than a third of people felt they knew what the new message was asking them to do. The overwhelming majority of people, 91%, said the previous “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” slogan was clear, while just 30% said they understood what “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” meant.
“Whoever came up with the previous slogan deserves a mention in the next birthday honours list,” said Whitehouse. “Whoever ever came up with this new slogan deserves to be fired … To be ambiguous about your messaging at this time will cost lives.”
The border on the logo displaying the slogan has also been changed, from red to green. “Green is an unfortunate choice of colour to put it mildly,” said Whitehouse. “We do not want to send the message that it’s a green light to go out and carry on as normal.”
Rutter sees many blunders in recent government messaging, but she does not think the choice of green for the logo is one of them. “Unlike the Scottish and the Welsh governments, they actually don’t want to keep ramming home the stay at home message,” she said.
“They’ve made a very deliberate decision that ‘stay home’ is not the message they want from this phase. They have been quite taken aback by the extent that the economy has shut down. They actually do think that more people should be going out and about.”