Sunday, 15 March 2020

The British government urgently needs to rethink communications

There have been some good questions asked about the government's strategy for dealing with Corona. I have several doubts and have voiced them and instead of credible answers I get shouted down and told to trust the word of the government's scientific officials. Instead of debate we get appeals to authority. We're seeing a great many comments along the lines of "Who do I trust more? The Chief Medical Officer - PhD, DFC, DSO and Bar or @SteveFromWigan5423".

The problem here is that shouting people down doesn't work. What does work is giving people good answers. The longer they go without good answers, the more they are likely to look to others for answers. The more aggressive the Twitter herd becomes in its demands for conformity the more contrarian people are likely to be.

This is where government communications has to play a more sophisticated game. There seems to be a tribal effort to shame dissenting voices or even those daring to air alternate narratives and perspectives. We then get into a game of top trumps as to which source has the most establishment prestige - a hugely irritating facet of any debate, but right now it's especially dangerous.

The government has stepped back (or so we are told) from its highly questionable "herd immunity" strategy, but doesn't seem to be taking any urgent measures to limit public exposure. The more the public goes without seeing tangible reassuring action the more panicked they will get.

This is where the government needs to be monitoring social media to isolate the most frequently asked questions. Rather than being disruptive to government business, Twitter is part of the scrutiny process. The crowd is able to cast a wider net and sift, where alternative narratives rise to the surface. Government must recognise it has to co-exist. Its communication strategy and feedback process should recognise this and respond accordingly.

Managing any crisis is as much a communications matter as anything else. It's not rocket science. You don't need a sophisticated behavioural science computer model to know that people are going to panic buy if they think it's government policy to infect the majority of us with a lethal virus as quickly as possible.

Whatever counter-intuitive strategy the government may have chosen, it conflicts our basic instincts. If the aim is to slow or contain, then keeping bars, clubs and tubes running doesn't seem particularly reassuring. If there is a logic to it, we need to know what it is, and to be able to interrogate it.

This is particularly where the media fails. We've seen this during Brexit press conferences where the star reporters of each network ask their own questions which are often a galaxy away from the questions ordinary people are asking, often badly framed, sometimes completely irrelevant or low priority, and at times, just crass. If the media isn't going to ask the right questions then the government needs to get better at finding our and answering the questions "Steve from Wigan" is asking and answering the more credible critics.

This is not the first time government communications has failed in a crisis. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples of how not to do it. In that scenario, as much as you're fighting a shooting war, you're also fighting a propaganda war where every needless death of a solder further erodes public support. This is why it was necessary to beef up our armoured vehicles. As much as the tardy response got a lot of good mean and women killed, it further entrenched the perception that we were fighting an unwinnable war.

In the first instance, the government's response was to wheel out generals to tell the critics they were playing "armchair general" and that the business of war fighting should be left to the experts - the same people who told us that keeping the peace in Iraq could be done with the same equipment and deployments as Northern Ireland. They couldn't have been more wrong.

If the government wants the cooperation of the public then it must do more to inform and reassure and take the time to accommodate critics. The aggressive tone we have seen from MPs and ministers on Twitter (already widely dislike and mistrusted) can only entrench the disagreements. For now the government may have public backing and has an easy ride form a tame media, public attitudes are fickle. When the body count starts to climb the government will start to lose the propaganda warm, whereupon it loses control of the the situation. When that happens, gone is any public cooperation which in the worse cases can lead to civil disorder and rioting.

More authoritarian countries can get away with disappearing critics or shutting down social media channels but in a free society government needs to get good at the communications game. It must recognise that fierce criticism goes with the territory and if managed correctly can be an asset as regards to honing the message. It cannot afford to make enemies of influencers.

That said, one rather suspects this is written in vain. The government cannot come clean because its own internal communications are in turmoil, and its policy is a wreck. It is sitting on top of a train wreck of a public health system which has lost control of this epidemic. Nothing it can say by way of reassurance can be matched by action, so its only course now is to try to suppress its critics.

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