The PR lessons of lockdown comms

As I watched PM Boris Johnson’s speech on Monday morning, just following his discharge from hospital after contracting Covid-19, I was taken aback – not only by the emotional content of BoJo’s speech, but by the message hierarchy of the British campaign. With a comms campaign that is almost wholly focused on the protection of the UK’s national health service, it made me think about what every government is grappling with right now.  

Crisis comms aside, the Covid-19 crisis has seen governments undertake what is without-doubt the most ambitious and fast-moving global behaviour change campaign we have ever seen. World leaders are staring into the coalface of a global pandemic – an issue incredibly nuanced and wide-ranging in its impacts – and must communicate succinctly and calmly to the masses. Almost overnight, world leaders were tasked to make their citizens halt modern life and stay home.

Each has adopted a different strategy. For Italy it has been ‘everything will be alright’, while in China, it’s the more macabreif you hang out in public today / grass will grow on your grave next year’. It is up to each government to determine which messages will resonate deepest with the local population and result in the swiftest community action.

As a New Zealander who has spent most of their professional life in London, I’ve been fascinated over the last few weeks, observing how the Covid-19 government comms differ between my old home and my homeland. Add in what’s been passed on from my colleagues in Australia and what’s come through global news, and it’s been interesting to see how the comms strategy and tactics have varied so widely globally, despite all wanting the same outcome.

Looking at the unique aspects of PM Jacinda Ardern’s approach and Johnson’s new-found personal connection – this is what I think we as communications professionals can learn from the covid response thus far:

1.    A clear comms framework creates clarity 

The day that the our Government announced its official plans to combat Covid-19, it also introduced the four-level Covid-19 alert system. The four levels – prepare, reduce, restrict and eliminate – correspond to a different range of measures.

Using the Covid-19 alert system, it gives structure to New Zealand’s comms campaign and helps citizens to understand and plan for measures that may be introduced. It also gives the public welcome reassurance that there is a plan beyond the next turn in the road.  Furthermore, all future communications and announcements can be slotted into the Covid-19 alert system framework, making the government’s plan seem more cohesive as a whole.

2.            Empathy goes a long way

After watching Boris Johnson’s emotional post-hospital speech, I was interested to see how his leadership style has evolved in light of his first-hand experience contracting Covid-19. While in the past some have criticised the PM’s speeches as flippant or formulaic, this time BoJo set aside his customary one-liners and quips and to strike a genuine, honest chord as he thanked the NHS staff that had cared for him. Showing empathy as a leader – whether you’re a president, a prime minister or a CEO – is a key skill to master, especially when it comes to media appearances. 

3.            Know what motivates your target audience

There aren’t many things that are universally agreed upon in Britain (North or South, Leave or Remain, jam or cream first on a scone?) However, as indicated by the huge popularity of its starring role in the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, the NHS is regarded as a national treasure. It is therefore no surprise that it’s a love of the NHS that has formed the backbone of the UK’s Covid-19 campaign.

In the UK government’s ‘Protect the NHS’ slogan, the NHS is characterised as the beating heart of the nation – ‘if the NHS fails – we all go down with it’. The slogan calls Brits to form a ‘human shield’, staying home to stop its health service from being overwhelmed.

This is a fascinating choice in terms of message hierarchy – calling on people to protect the healthcare system, rather than the other way around – but in the UK, it resonates. Elsewhere in the world this message might be confusing and just wouldn’t motivate the public, but in Britain people are staying home to protect the NHS.

4.            The value of streamlined messaging

A simple concept to capture an enormous ask – the introduction of the ‘bubble’ is without doubt one of the biggest successes of the New Zealand Government’s ‘United Against Covid-19’ campaign. A concept that’s easy enough to explain to a child – your ‘bubble’ represents the concept of social distancing in an accessible way. 

In times as uncertain as these, when policies are constantly shifting with the latest statistics, it helps if your core messaging is as clear as possible. Although defining social distancing and communicating it to a nation is no doubt a challenge, if you find yourself down the rabbit hole of debating the appropriate length of a hair appointment – you need to strip your thinking back.

5.            Keeping media statements informative 

PM Jacinda Ardern’s 1pm press conference leaves little or no room for speculation or the spread of misinformation. She keeps the updates succinct, starting with an update on new cases, hospital admissions, recoveries, and on sadder days, deaths. These regular briefings are incredibly informative, and enable Kiwis to have a one-stop shop for all their national covid related news.

We will always remember when a certain leader who made the claim that Covid-19 would be over by Easter. As those sorts of statements will long remain in the public mind, it all comes back to the age-old media training tactic – if you don’t know the answer, don’t give one.

Beccy Churchill is the New Zealand consultant at Herd MSL.

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