A few tips for the government’s COVID comms

Mark My Words #2

Public confidence in the government’s coronavirus response is at an all-time low—and for good reason. The cabinet’s communications have been piecemeal, difficult to follow, and subject to last-minute revision.

The latest assurances that the military will be called in are no real improvement—Ben Wallace’s announcement was more parade, without any substance.

The disastrous consequences of this lacklustre response were seen on the fifteenth of December, when the cabinet made a sudden move to retract its promise to allow households to mix on Christmas. The announcement felt frantic and reactionary. The rest of the world read ‘Mutant Corona ravages Britain’, and Britons felt more alienated than ever.

While Boris’s television announcements might have become less byzantine, he is still a far cry from Angela Merkel, whose direct, understated, and emotional appeal has earned her the highest rates of confidence she’s ever had.

Boris likes extreme language, and that’s part of the problem. He shot himself in the foot when he said it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas. He then then had to do it. He threatened to punish schools with legal action if they prepared for online teaching. Now, they must. The British people understand that a pandemic presents unpredictable obstacles. That’s why an earnest and moderate voice of tough love, like Merkel’s, has been much more effective than Boris’s overconfident tone.

Three things have proven to work in the pandemic:

1.      Tough love in a sober tone. Merkel’s sobriety has made her presentation of the problems facing Germany much more vivid. When she does make an emotional plea, it is that much more effective.

2.      Consistency of messaging. The invention of a fourth tier made the tier system seem ad hoc and half-baked. It was lampooned on social media as ‘a dynamic that could continue indefinitely’. Stick to the tiers, or ditch them. 

3.      Less sloganizing, more direct appeals. The pandemic has seen a profusion of phrases: ‘rule of six’, ‘eat out to help out’, ‘hands, space, face’. Mnemonics are a helpful tool for public health campaigns, but an over-reliance on zingers makes them feel cheap.

And a couple points just about Boris:

Less apologising, more leadership. Throughout his announcements, Boris has prefaced his decisions with apologies. ‘It is with a heavy heart…’ and so on. We need firmness now more than ever, instead of bending over backward to seem empathetic. 

Get a haircut. This is more than a question of taste.  Boris’s messy appearance is becoming an obstacle to his ability to inspire confidence. It hearkens back to the panto-style villain he ought to shed, rather than forward to the type of leader he needs to be. If he could restructure his comms around a new, sharper look, the visual shock of the new would be profound enough to reset his comms approach.

I encourage everyone to watch Merkel’s speech, if only because it’s refreshing to see a leader speak so unaffectedly to the public. When she laments that there won’t be any Weihenachten markets or mulled wine this year, it is clear she really cherishes these institutions. When Boris talks about Britain’s jolly traditions, he seems to put them in quotation marks.