Government in communications crisis.

12 May 2020

Boris Johnson
HM Government's communications strategy was at the heart of heated debates across the UK following the PM’s address to the nation on Sunday 10 May.

Many people were left confused by Boris Johnson’s recent lockdown speech.

With social media erupting with comparable Monty Python clips, there was a feeling of general disquiet as the nation tried to make sense of the ‘first sketch of a roadmap for reopening society’ – without clear direction.

Chris Wilkins, former Director of Strategy at No 10, and chief speechwriter to the previous Prime Minister, said,

“I’m afraid the government’s comms efforts are filling me with despair at the moment. There is so much to say really. They are just not getting it right”. 

So how did No 10 get their communications so wrong and why is it important?

The four C’s:

    • Clarity.A key theme in conversations around the PMs speech was the lack of clarity, increasingly vague statements and muddled content. In question time Johnson said, “Everyone’s got the clarity of the original stay at home message”..(but)..when you come to take small steps back to normality clearly the message becomes finer, more complicated”. Illustrating that the more complex the message – the clearer the communications must be, whatever the medium.


    • Context.The devil is in the detail. Communication without context or detail, only adds to confusion, frustration and undermines confidence. A balance of detail, communicated with clarity, reassures audiences which is particularly important in difficult times. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer commented on the PM’s speech, saying, “..what we needed was clarity and reassurance.”


    • Consistency.Communicating the same clear message consistently, instils confidence and increases the likelihood of best advice compliance from the general population. The government has been guilty of mixed messaging. So telling the population not to go to restaurants or cafes, but refusing to shut them down, allows people to rationalise that the government does not really mean what it is saying. 


    • Connectivity.Ensuring communications reach across channels in a timely manner and connect with every aspect of messaging is equally as important. Without connecting the dots, it is easy for the message to become lost, lose its impact or become irrelevant altogether. Johnson was criticised for addressing the public before the full measures were released, resulting in contradictory information. Writing in The Telegraph, former Tory leader William Hague suggested, “The Prime Minister would be well advised in future to present a detailed statement to parliament first, with the accompanying documents and detail, and then address the nation.”


Matt Hancock argued that concerns about the government’s messaging strategy were “second order” amid the wider issues thrown up by the pandemic. But are they? Given that the public’s understanding of what is required of them will be vital to the recovery of the nation on all fronts – particularly, the prevention of more fatalities.

From government officials to Piers Morgan, many opinions demand to be heard. However, it is the job of a leader to bring clarity to complex issues; to be the one voice above all others that inspires confidence and delivers reassurance in times of uncertainty. Communication is crucially important in this task, as nothing damages trust, confidence and reputation quicker than poor communication. And sometimes, communicating effectively is quite literally, a matter of life or death.

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