Now is the time for Government realism, not certainty

By Shimon Cohen, founder and chairman, the PR Office.

Decades ago, I worked as part of the PR team for the launch of Sky. The birth of its 24-hour news spawned the growth of constant news everywhere: TV, radio, print and online. For those of us in PR, this was awesome: so many hours and columns to fill meant more and more opportunities for our clients. But over the last few months, there have been times when the news cycle has almost felt like a burden.

We have become used to the pattern: Government trails new COVID-19 policy; social media is instantly flooded with reactions – sometimes from experts, but most often from thousands of commentators who seem unnervingly certain about how to balance public health, economic necessity and common sense; then the policy is officially announced amidst the maelstrom.

As a PR professional, my chief interest is how the Government can rise above the noise and extremes of “armchair experts” who hold court on social media.

“Advisers advise, but ministers decide”, as Margaret Thatcher put it, but there’s an important final step – communication to the public.

After the Government has made its decisions, communicating them to the public is becoming more and more of a challenge.

Fundamentally, the reason for this is the current narrative the Government has chosen. With each new policy response to the pandemic, the Government has opted for a narrative of hope and control, presenting each challenge as the final hurdle. The message has been: if we conquer this one last obstacle, we will break the back of this.

Despite the Government’s confident and uncompromising tone, it has repeatedly felt like one step forward and two steps back, especially as we face the prospect of another lengthy national lockdown. The resulting public mood has been one of disillusionment and the erosion of trust in the Government’s approach.

You don’t need to be a pollster or a data analyst to recognise this shift, with the Prime Minister’s 52% approval in March down to something closer to 27% now. The Government’s messaging has left many of us feeling disconnected from their thinking. Whilst day to day we had to change our business strategies and adapt rapidly to the changing dynamics around us, the Government only spoke in terms of the definite.

But how could it? We really had no idea if the mass test and trace system that had to be invented and implemented from scratch was going to be world-beating; we really have no clue if Christmas is going to be normal. Even now, the Prime Minister looks likely to insist that the lockdown will end on 2 December, when really, we can have no idea.

The flawed messaging has overshadowed what the Government has actually done.

Nightingale Hospitals, furlough and business support have all been unprecedented and important, but overshadowed. On top of that, the erosion of trust in the Government makes it less likely that the public will follow the official guidance, benefiting no-one. It would have been far better to have said from the start that this is an unprecedented situation, changing daily. We are doing what we can to keep you all safe.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we have no option but to try.

There were hints of a more humble approach in the Prime Minister’s press conference on Saturday evening. For the first time, I saw a far more measured character, who clearly had run out of road and was now having to do something that every fibre in his liberal Conservative body had resisted. There was a clear recognition that the situation is changing daily. Gone were the optimistic claims, which have been so unhelpful, and there was a much more measured tone.

As usual, the social media commentariat was quick to call out another Boris Johnson “U-turn”. A minority commented on the importance of the decision to keep us all safe. But we shouldn’t be calling the decision a U-turn, we should be calling it policy making. The problem is when the Government has spoken only in certainties for months, any change will be viewed as weakness or reversal.

The truth is actions should speak louder than words but for now, the words have undermined the actions. A change in how the Government speaks to the public is long overdue.

Shimon Cohen is the founder and chairman of The PR Office, a London-based public relations consultancy.

Image: Crown Copyright via Gov.uk.

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