Asking a nation to stay at home indefinitely is a huge ask. Whether the UK is ready to deal with the pandemic is much more questionable, but I judge the communication as effective and well executed so far. The team of medical experts and politicians are collaborating effectively to communicate clearly and it will save lives. When I look across to the US I feel grateful.
1. Authoritative medical experts are visible and being listened to.
When making the biggest decisions we listen carefully to independent experts. Seeing ministers consistently flanked by Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer), Jenny Harries (Deputy Chief Medical Officer) and Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) is reassuring evidence of a government focused on ‘following the science’ in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. With politicians trusted by 14% of the British public and doctors by 93%, the most trusted are articulately and expertly guiding us and the government on what to do.
Medical experts have found themselves in the spotlight during national briefings. The UK Government’s ‘team of equals’ and prominence of experts is in contrast to the politician-led US.
2. Messaging is sharp, simple, consistent and directs behaviour.
Learning from past campaigning is reflected in 2-3 word messages covering the key instruction (stay at home) and the biggest motivations for the millions watching on TV. Saving the lives of others and protecting medical workers / NHS capacity is a shared incentive relevant to even those younger and less personally threatened by the virus. Inevitably details have needed clarification but the big messages are clear and consistent. In briefings each statement is in the colour of one of the main political parties conveying a unity we haven’t seen in, well, ever.
3. Vital instructions has reached almost everyone in 12 hours.
27.1 million people watched PM Boris Johnson’s short-notice TV address announcing the requirement to stay at home. Mobile carriers then issued emergency text alerts the following morning – the first time all UK carriers have been instructed to message on behalf of the government.
A highly prescriptive, doctor-like TV commercial (featuring Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty) was aired in parallel and UK iPhone users have received a COVID-19 public service announcement in the Apple App store.
4. The right behaviours have been role modelled and invited.
Government briefings have moved on-line. Importantly, the public have been invited to play a positive role as NHS volunteers in supporting the lock down and the protecting of those most vulnerable. More than 500,000 people have volunteered and become a positive part of the solution.
With the PM and ministers now testing positive for Covid-19 and going into self-isolation, the right behaviours (and real risks) are amplified:
5. Boris Johnson’s plea for compliance has got personal.
A letter from the PM is being sent to 30 million homes to reaffirm instructions. It is an impactful event in its own right and carries the additional warning that the police will enforce instructions. What is particularly significant is the expectation management. Our satisfaction (and so compliance) is strongly linked to where expectations are set, so the PM’s ‘levelling’ message is significant, indicating restrictions will remain in place for some time.
“It’s important for me to level with you – we know things will get worse before they get better.”Boris Johnson
6. The consequences of no action have been clearly presented.
People are risk averse so highlighting risks that are realistic, credible and imminent is highly persuasive when seeking behaviour change. We are ‘fortunate’ to be following the impact of Covid-19 in Italy, China and South Korea. The ‘nearby’ Italian impact has rightly been used to explain and frame UK actions. The government have repeatedly warned: “The numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating. We are only a matter of weeks — two or three — behind Italy.”
7. Social media communication initially and ‘sensibly’ avoided.
The initial absence of Facebook and Instagram messaging was surprising given the promise of free media from platforms. I suspect this was a deliberate approach to avoid the noisy and low trust environment for messaging that could change and be debated. (According to Kantar only 11 per cent of people see social media platforms as a source of trustworthy information). With simple and consistent instructional messages now communicated in a recognisable government film saturation of social media will now happen.
Facebook and Instagram has been plagued with misleading information. Users have created anonymous personal profiles to sell face masks and other items.
Ultimately, the UK government’s actions will count so much more than words but the communication is clear, persuasive and will ultimately save lives.
I am certainly yet to put my head in my hands with what I have seen and heard so far…