How we can engage and communicate more effectively with the nation
The coronavirus (and subsequent COVID-19) has been one big comms strategy where countries look to stem the tide of the infection with strategic advice to their nations. By the time that the virus hit UK shores in late January, the WHO had already declared a global health emergency with thousands of new cases in China. The virus already had a grip in Europe with Italy (and Spain) at the epicentre and, with hundreds of flights between China, Italy and our little island, it was only a matter of time before the virus spread to Great Britain and the United Kingdom. As the originator of the virus, China had time to construct a battle-plan and add their comms to ensure a swift shut-down of the virus. The epicentral city of Wuhan isolated on 28th January with no entrance or exit from the city.
Italian authorities had to be brave and move fast. They knew the eyes of the world were on them, and their strategy would be crucial in tackling the spread across their country and further.
For the UK, we had the luxury of seeing how China and Italy dealt with the situation. We saw the Chinese and Italian health services at breaking point, knowing that we could be in the same boat in a few weeks.
In the NHS, we have an incredible medical service that helps everyone with virtually any health issue.
- For many minor health issues, you can see your local Pharmacist.
- If you’re unwell, you can call 111 and speak to a trained HCP (health care professional)
- If you require face to face medical assistance, you can see your local GP.
- If you have a more severe issue, immediate issue, you can visit your local A&E service.
In short, health-wise, we’re all covered as I’d guess that 99% of the general population understand how we speak with health care professionals to get the optimal care. 99% is excellent, but that still leaves 670,000 people going to A&E (as an example) for cold or cough medicine.
With COVID-19 advancing, and by seeing China and Italy struggling (capacity healthcare-wise), all the scientific predictions show that the NHS (in its existing state) would not deal with the expected influx of COVID-19 related patients. Without intervention, we’d expect a sharp rise in inpatients who require ventilators to help their respiratory function pull through the most serious of cases.
With a finite level of ventilators, Doctors would have the unenviable task of deciding who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. To patients in vulnerable positions, this could be a death sentence. Suddenly the NHS isn’t for everyone as it’s just for the ones who statistically could pull through COVID-19. Patients who are deemed too risky are left to fight it unassisted and, ultimately succumb to the virus.
The simplest way to keep the virus under the threshold of what the NHS can handle is to ‘flatten the curve’. Effectively, we have resigned to the fact that most of us will contract this virus, but we’re still in control over when this happens. By delaying the progress of the infection, we’re hoping that the pandemic surges throughout the country slowly, giving the NHS ample time to treat and recover patients before the next batch arrives on hospital beds.
In the UK, we’ve changed our strategy as to how we think COVID-19 will impact the country as each week (and day) passes. Government communication appeared in several distinct phases.
- Be aware of the virus and take precautions if you are travelling to/from China or through international airports.
- Social distancing.
- Keep two meters from each other.
- Cough into a tissue (and bin it).
- Wash hands for 20 seconds as per NHS advice
- Businesses asked to provide additional hygiene products to ensure a safe working environment.
- Where possible, businesses advised agreeing on home-working to avoid public commuting and potential workplace accidental infection.
- Partial lockdown. The population ‘advised’ to stay at home except for essential travel and exercise. The word ‘advised’ has been a critical issue for me throughout this crisis that we can come onto later. Outdoor workouts are allowed at a ‘social distancing’ level for up to an hour each day.
- Phased, eased lockdown. Unlimited exercise is permitted, and social interaction can be with one other person outside of your household within social distancing rules and in an outdoor space (such as a park).
The government have been explicit in not referring to the current situation as a ‘lockdown’… because it isn’t. A lockdown would keep everyone in their homes with no access to shops, work, medical assistance and places of employment.
A real ‘lockdown’ would also be destructive to the country and public services as all, but essential public services would stop, and strains put on policing and military support.
As mentioned above, we’ve been fortunate to have seen and learned from China, Italy and other nations with a more advanced pandemic than our own.
Something our government have never been shy of is throwing money at a situation (as proven by Rishi Sunak) so where’s the link between cash and communications? Not only are the government talking about big money, but they’re also spending big on ensuring the right message gets out as quickly and efficiently as possible.
From working in government during the ‘coalition years’, I have full faith that the current communications advisors to No10 are working all hours of the day, night and weekends to ensure the right message is getting out there. During my time in Westminster, we relied heavily on the press to convey our messages. Social and digital-media as tactics to communicate were relatively new to politics which is kind of how I got my job at the ‘mother of all parliaments’.
I’ve always worked on a multi-channel approach where I try to get a specific message across to multiple people by targeting different channels at optimised times with messages tailored to specific channels and their audiences. The current crop of No10 comms is much more advanced in this methodology than during my tenure. Where we would traditionally rely on party political broadcasts and press releases to get our message out, we can now see a full array of tactics to communicate to the masses. Tech-wise, the government have pretty much nailed it.
We consume far more information more conveniently than ever before. The government have identified the main ways in which we consume information and target them.
Starting with the digital side of comms, the government set up gov.uk in 2012 as a hub for all government communications, national and local. As the coronavirus crisis hit, gov.uk has transformed to ensure all government advice is readily available. Since the government started taking this pandemic seriously, I’ve read government advice on gov.uk, received a text message from UK_Gov, a postal letter from Boris Johnson, read numerous press articles about this situation and seen hundreds of advice banners across the internet. Say what you like about Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, but they know how to get the point across.
In Westminster, my colleague Ryan Coetzee had a mantra.
- On Message
- In Volume
- Over Time
To this day, I still refer back to this in every marketing and comms exercise I execute.
The current government are no different. Dominic Cummings had a set rule of communication – the power of three. During the referendum, his message was clear, “Take Back Control”. In the 2019 general election, “Get Brexit Done” and, more recently “Whatever It Takes”. Adorning, lecterns for the past few months we’ve seen.
- Stay Home
- Protect the NHS
- Save Lives
- Stay Alert
- Control the Virus
- Save Lives
The message has drilled into the UK public for several weeks, and on-large seems to be getting through.
In marketing, we talk about how repetition is critical, familiarising the target audience with the message that, after several touch-points, becomes comfortable and normalised.
An issue with the current communications is that the government initially kept inserting the word ‘advised’ into their speeches. Lines such as “We advise you to stay at home” or “We urge you to stay at home” are seen as suggestions that the general population are willing to flaunt. It was a month into a lockdown that this message changes to become “You must stay at home” – still not the hardest hitting message, but it’s a sharper and clearer messenger than before.
For the English-speaking audience in the UK, this is evident and working. For the non-English-speaking audience, this is a significant issue.
According to the 2011 Census, 8% of people (4 million) living in the UK who do not speak English as their first, or primary, language. Nearly 140,000 residents of the UK do not speak English at all (about 0.2% of the population), so you can understand why the government communications team have seemingly ignored them. 0.2% is statistically insignificant when devising a general communications plan, but this is no ordinary issue. This pandemic was started with (supposedly) just one person that has virally infected much of the world. With 140,000 UK residents not getting the message, the implications could be extremely damaging to the UK efforts to slow down and eradicate the virus.
A further (and bigger) issue with government communications is the lack of support for the deaf. According to the official UK government website in 2017, 11 million UK residents (16% of the population) are either deaf or hard of hearing. It’s beautiful to see daily briefings from the government but strange not to see (initially) a BSL interpreter by their side. Where 8% of the UK do not speak English as a primary language, and 16% of the country can not hear any word, potentially 1 in 5 people in the UK are not seeing or understanding the daily briefings.
Other communications (such as the letters, text and web banners) have partially quelled the hearing issue, but it raises new problems with other communications disabilities. While it’s great to receive mail and text advice, the visually impaired are another large group of UK residents are being ignored. With 360,000 people in the UK registered as blind, they can hear daily briefings but can not read the generic letter sent to all UK residents. The regular government presentations usually start with some verbal statistics, followed by graphics with commentary such as “as you can see from this chart” or “notice the trend on this graph”. Visual graphics are little help to people registered as blind and an aspect of the government communications strategy that need revisiting.
With nearly 20% of the UK classed as Generation Z (born in the mid-1990s), there’s a large portion of the population who ingest information in a vastly different way to the decision-makers within the UK government.
If it’s fair to state that Gen Z primarily digests their information through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and possibly new media such as Fortnight, they tend to have no interest in mainstream local and print news.
Whose responsibility is it to educate the young population about the importance of Social Distancing? Parents, teachers, the government?
Head to Google Maps (desktop), and you’ll see a lovely banner that has detailed information about COVID-19 in the selected area. The same is not true of the tablet/phone versions of the software that gives zero information.
We know that Apple and Google are working on a ‘decentralised’ COVID-19 notification app that informs people when they’ve been within a few meters of someone with COVID-19. The NHS recently rejected it because of concerns about simplicity and battery drainage. I was disappointed to hear this as I sit at home with my phone on a Qi charger pad. I will happily sacrifice battery life for the sake of my health. On lockdown, we are at home with our charging cables and mats. I leave the house once a day to exercise and occasionally to go shopping for my family. In these instances, I’m not out for longer than an hour so the app would have to be an absolute battery-hog to drain my battery in that time. From my time working in tech healthcare, I know how poorly run the NHSX (the NHS digital innovations department) is. In October 2018 they launched the new NHS app reportedly costing upwards of £10M. Upon its late release, the app is a simple website within an app ‘shell’ that developers could have created for a fraction of the reported price tag.
At the time of writing, the ‘centralised’ NHS version of the app is live in the Isle of Wight. Tech experts question how data is handled and stored on NHS servers when the Apple Google version explicitly states that all medical information is anonymous.
Checks are done on the phone and not sent to a central server for an algorithm to determine the phone’s proximity to someone with symptoms.
I want to see tech companies produce contact tracing apps to lessen the severity of this pandemic. Facebook, Amazon and Google openly admit to tracking our movements, voice and behaviour so why not add an algorithm to track the spread of the virus and notify people when they’ve been in contact with affected people? It’s public knowledge that big tech firms already follow us, why not use the data for good? I fear it’s because the tech giants don’t want the extent of their tracking more public than it already is.
I understand that in today’s digital age, ‘data is king’ but we should be letting NHSX and tech giants take advantage of this global suffering in the name of a cheap ‘data-grab’.
While I had full respect for the quality, intelligence and work-ethics of my colleagues, I was always disappointed with the lack of experience across the Liberal Democrat and Cabinet Office teams. The median age was in the high twenties. When you account for a bachelor’s degree and a post-grad qualification coupled with any work-experience and internship they’d been through, the real-world experience was a few years, at best.
Rightly or wrongly, I attribute the lack of experience to salary and budgetary constraints in government and party-politics. With MPs claiming an £80k salary and a Cabinet Minister claiming nearly double, staff salaries were always much lower than the private sector equivalents. ‘Supply & Demand’ dictates that these sought-after roles attract many applicants, but younger candidates with no dependents could only justify the relatively low wages. Across the DPM’s political and Civil Service teams of around ten people, only two were married with few dependents across the whole team. As a digital comms member of the group, I fitted perfectly into that demographic. How many experienced (and currently furloughed) comms professionals could immediately lend their hand?
Dominic Cummings may be a political messaging genius, but his recent PR hiccup could unravel all the excellent work he (and the government comms team) has done up to now.
I’ll leave that blog for another time.
If the public, who know and understand the rules are breaking them, what hope do the millions of people who haven’t heard, seen or understood the message (due to language or physical barriers) have?
We already have high levels of government budget spend on COVID-19 communications. With a relatively small addition of braille letters multilingual letters, BSL interpreters at government events, stadium banners on Fifa, splash screens on Fortnite and multilingual support on gov.uk, we can slow the rate of infection significantly amongst minority and disability groups in the UK.