Risk communications is in my view is incredibly difficult. In the world of professional communications, it is one of the hardest things to get right. COVID-19 or Coronavirus is going to provide an interesting case study in how to effectively communicate risk (or how not to). And lesson one might usefully be the Prime Minister’s press conference this week.
First the problem: Scientists and statisticians understand risk as a probability. There is a 20% chance of x happening means: possible but not very likely while an 85% chance means: really quite likely but not certain.
However, most people do not think as clearly as this. And in general, they are encouraged by journalists, especially tabloid journalists, to read low risk as a likelihood. [I strongly recommend Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, if you want to understand this more clearly’. Since reading it I have become a student of Bayesian thinking.]
As a result, ‘over-reaction’ or ‘panic’ can easily be triggered by too much information. And if, as an organisation facing a problem, you know the press is going to over-react the temptation is not to provide information.
However, in public life, if you don’t come clean about risks you lay yourself open to charges of ‘white-washing’ or lack of transparency. This destroys trust.
So, for the government, this is a case where too much information, the wrong tone or a misspeak could cause or add to the panic. Too little information and it risks being accused of a cover-up.
The unusual Number 10 press conference on 3rd March may have looked calm and professional, but all three men knew they were walking that particular tightrope. It is a very good watch for students of risk communications.
Here are my take-aways:
- The choice of people at the podium was crucial. We had the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Witty, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. These were very senior, obviously clever advisors. They stood either side of the Prime Minister giving a very nice image of support.
- Both advisers constantly referred to the data and to modelling. They made it absolutely clear that they were sharing science, not opinion. I loved the point where Professor Witty said ‘The behavioural science shows that in times of crisis the British public demonstrates extraordinary altruism’. Even when saying people will help each other he felt the need to refer to science!
- Despite the brainpower of the two advisers, there was absolutely no use of jargon. This looks effortless but I am certain it was really difficult. These men will have spent the last three weeks in technical briefings by data and health scientists. Having been in a few of those meetings myself I can tell you that the jargon will have been impenetrable. But also, as contagious as the virus itself.
- Key points were stressed time and again. The importance of washing hands was not considered too prosaic for these great brains to pronounce on. And to repeat.
- No question was dodged – except perhaps the one about the PM taking paternity leave. This gave a very clear impression of transparency. In fact, there were several questions that weren’t answered but in each case one of the spokesmen said either ‘we are not going to answer’ or ‘we can’t speak about that at this stage’. In media training, I am constantly reminding people that they must at least acknowledge the question before adding or changing the subject.
- There was no repetition of the journalists’ sensational language. It was predictably the Daily Mail journalist who invited comparison with a war effort. However, the Prime Minister decided not to accept the invitation! All three spokespeople were careful to use their own words.
Despite the controlled and measured tone of the press conference, the coverage was extensive and somewhat sensationalist.
As a seasoned watcher of these things, it is clear that there was no great slip-up and no stand-out message from the press conference beyond the hand washing and ‘we have a plan’. Given these are a bit weak for a hungry journalist the coverage varies across newspapers and broadcasters as different journalists firstly choose and then beef up particular angles. When you don’t get agreement on the headlines you can be sure the story is not so strong.
The Daily Mail went with ‘Life on hold’, the Guardian went with ‘Murder inquiries to be axed’ which is more than a bit of a stretch from the very cautious ‘with a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order’. The Times found an angle from elsewhere – video checks on some NHS wards, but used a sub-heading from the press conference: ‘Prime Minister unveils strategy to deal with coronavirus disruption’. The Telegraph led with ‘expect 20pc of all workers to be off sick’. This is definitely a misrepresentation: the tone of the press conference was ‘we don’t know yet’. The Express went with ‘Britain ready for the worst’ which is at least accurate.
Overall, the broadcast coverage I saw and heard was more measured, but there was an awful lot of it. That in itself gave the impression that Britain was facing into a major epidemic.
Downing Street will probably be happy enough with the coverage. The PR wisdom in such cases would be you do what you can to be transparent and factual but accept there will be a ‘sensationalist hit’. However, you trust that most people will not over-react to the headlines. What matters most is not the first hit of the story but how sensationalist the tail is – and of course how the public reacts.
It looks as if there will be many more chapters of coronavirus communications in the coming weeks and months for students of PR. We know that organisations are dusting off their pandemic policies and planning their own communications. If you want help planning or rehearsing for major communications events, I and The Media Coach team regularly help organisations craft and deliver nuanced messaging. Drop me an email on Lindsay.firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to discuss how we can help.
Virus image by iXimus from Pixabay