‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ is the UK government’s update to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ … and political opponents from all quarters have orchestrated a loud furore about the ‘confusion’ caused by this message.
Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland was quick to complain and refused to adopt it north of the border and the Welsh government quickly follow suit. They complain that no one will understand what ‘stay alert’ means.
‘Stay alert’ is perfectly clear (in context) and a perfectly good message.
Stay Alert: The Role of a Top-Line Message
Short pithy phrases make good ‘top-lines’ for messages. They rarely encompass the whole story. In fact, it is often better if they don’t. So long as they are memorable and relevant then it is often useful to spark some discussion about the detailed meaning. I think of it as opening the door to an argument. In time the top-line phrase may become the shorthand for the whole argument or narrative. Think ‘shielding’ in the COVID context. Think ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’; think ‘keep calm and carry on’; think ‘dig for victory’ and so on. I suspect all my readers could explain the thinking behind each of these phrases. But anyone working on a literal translation would probably struggle to understand.
The tricolon ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ was similarly incomplete. For example, what does ‘protect the NHS mean’? Should we arm ourselves and stand in front of hospitals? No, of course not. Government spokespeople needed the top-line ‘protect the NHS’ to open the door to understanding the importance of ensuring the health service was not overwhelmed as had been seen in Italy. Everyone got it.
‘Stay alert’ as an update to ‘stay home’ is not at all confusing. It obviously means you no longer need to stay home but things are far from normal. In the detail there is stuff that needs to be explained; new rules about what we can and cannot do.
Of course, the government could have said instead ‘be careful’ or ‘stay aware’ or ‘be vigilant’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘keep your wits about you’ and so on. But ‘stay alert’ would be my favourite of all those.
So why the loud complaints and sniping from the side-lines? The answer, I think is that there are political opponents who want to ensure they are seen to be active. But of course, it is very difficult to criticise too heavily when, to do so, might risk the current compliance and the life-saving consensus. Simply put: they have to find something to complain about.
For students of PR, it is worth understanding that even when people criticise a message – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not effective. To take a controversial example from history (which I strongly disapprove of), Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ phrase was massively criticised. But it was also hugely influential. The Brexit campaign’s £350 million a week claim was again hugely criticised, for good reason, but undoubtedly influential.
Top-line messages need to be short and memorable and open the door to an argument. As anyone who has worked with us knows, we favour metaphors, similes and analogies in this role but the important question is does it do the job? And here is why this is important. If, as a spin doctor or slogan writer you are too cautious, you will end up with something wordy and worthy that everyone can agree on, but no one remembers.
There are many things the government – perhaps most governments – have got wrong in this crisis. Mistakes that have cost lives. Bitching about the message is just a distraction.