Coronavirus Communications – PM could do better, a lot better

Coronavirus communications from the government are being scrutinised by the entire population. I was deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s performance during yesterday’s press briefing. As my phone went berserk in the aftermath it became clear I wasn’t alone.

Coronavirus communications image

I got texts from friends who were confused by the PM’s announcements, a call from a pub owner who was defiant about closing and messages from parents who felt none the wiser about when schools will shutdown.

Summing it all up was a former colleague who is managing the news-desk of one of Britain’s main national broadcasters:

“That was a f&*%ing car crash”.

Maybe a tad harsh, but he’s right that Boris should be doing far, far better.

A meticulous coronavirus communications strategy, containing carefully crafted messages, is hard to do when things are moving so fast. But it is absolutely vital. There is simply no room for vagueness, ambiguity or improvisation and I think Johnson failed on all three of those measures and just couldn’t resist the urge to wing it.

Effective crisis comms relies on giving clear, decisive, detailed information in the right tone. But that is not what we heard on Monday.

Urging people not to go to bars and restaurants without actually closing them – or being on the front foot about what provision you will make for the hospitality industry – was a confused and confusing message. It generated ill will among landlords and the catering trade, who feel hung out to dry in relation to their insurance, and judging from the pubs I went past last night was counter productive anyway.

That clanger has been widely covered this morning but what worried me just as much was the way that Johnson responded to reporters’ questions towards the end of the briefing. He was asked what he would do to help low income households, a question which gave him the perfect opportunity to land a reassuring message along the lines of “we are all in this together and people will not be left stranded”.

Instead, he responded by talking about improvements the Conservatives have made to the living wage, a party political response which was totally out of place.

He was then asked about the broader impact on the economy and talked about it “roaring back” within months, a sub Trumpian response which seemed neither rehearsed or reassuring.

I agreed with the Guardian’s snap verdict, which said the “roaring back quote came over as naïve utopianism”, and concluded “Johnson made a reasonably good fist of explaining what his proposals were but there was an enormous gap in the statement that a more experienced or strategic prime minister would have addressed”.

What’s required in this sort of situation is discipline and sobriety, traits which whatever your political persuasion is not what Johnson is renowned for and his performance confirmed what were already growing concerns yesterday about his and the government’s communication strategy.

These weren’t helped by the reports, which haven’t been denied by Number 10, that Johnson had made a joke during a conference call to manufacturers regarding the emergency production of ventilators that it could be called Operation Last Gasp.

One of the golden rules of any engagement with the media is to be very careful about any attempt at humour but what this proved was that the PM needs to realise that he needs to avoid careless or flippant comments in any situation in the current crisis.

There have been some good decisions. Ending the self-imposed ban on ministers appearing on the Today Programme was right and necessary.

Flanking Johnson with scientists Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was a smart move, not only does it portray that the government are no longer sick of hearing from experts, it also gives Johnson foils to whom he can refer questions that require scientific authority, detail never having been his strength. What is his strength is he can deliver a message with authority in a way that gives the press what they need to tell the story the government needs to circulate. Johnson’s use of the line “I must level with the British public” last Thursday showed what he can do when he’s prepped and disciplined. Let’s hope the clarifications come swiftly and the lessons have been learnt.

The Media Coach team have now switched to providing training and coaching online. Clients planning their own coronavirus communications are booking in two hour slots of Skype, Zoom or Webex coaching. If you think spokespeople need coaching before talking to the media or staff – or if they are to do videos – we can help. We can also provide camera operators in London, the South East and the Midlands if should they be needed. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

About Jon Bennett

Jon Bennett is a seasoned print and television journalist. He has been at the sharp end of journalism for more than 20 years and can share insights into a variety of news operations. He started his career in regional press, training as a news reporter in the North East for The Journal, while also writing for national magazines such as Mojo, Q and GQ. In 2001 he became News Editor at Sky News, working in this role for four years before moving to work as a producer on Tonight with Trevor McDonald on ITV. He then took on the position of News Editor at ITV news, managing the input department on national bulletins such as News at Ten. Jon returned to Sky News as Entertainments Editor in 2007 where he was responsible for managing the channel’s coverage of arts and show-business across TV, radio and online. He increased the profile of entertainment news on Sky and organised and managed coverage of events such as the Oscars, Brits and Bafta award ceremonies. His next move was to Getty Images as their Supervising Producer, managing the video department and news crews across EMEA, focusing on working with brands on creating/developing their own promotional video material. He now works freelance as a TV producer and writer for a wide variety of magazines and national newspapers including The Sun and The Sunday Times. Jon hosts Media Training workshops for The Media Coach.

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