How can the government improve its messaging around coronavirus?

Government ads: lacking something?
Government ads: lacking something?

Many feel the government's advertising around Covid-19 manages to somehow be both specific and vague.

Let’s face it: the term "social distancing" is lacking. Apart from sounding like something dreamed up as a totalitarian diktat, it’s the type of terminology that gives the gist but not the whole story. And in these dark days when clear messaging around health is quite literally a matter of life and death, the whole story is crucial.

To be fair, the UK government didn’t come up with the term, yet many feel our leaders' comms are suffering from a similar problem – ostensibly definitive, yet in reality wildly open to interpretation. It's an issue that has become manifest in public spaces, where many members of the great British public are apparently still gathering – sometimes at supermarkets, where they're locked in a frenzy of panic-buying.

In response, earlier this week Labour called on adland to donate work to prevent panic-buying at supermarkets – something that the government has done little to address.

St Luke’s had already pre-empted Labour’s request (and circumvented government activity), producing a piece of marketing that reversed the letters of the NHS logo, making them stand for "Stay home now". The inversion also acts as a cautionary metaphor for sending "our NHS backwards". It's the sort of pithy messaging absent from government campaigning.

Meanwhile, a meme (see below) has been doing the rounds on social media. It replaces "practise social distancing", which it describes as vague and conceptual, suggesting instead the phrase: "Stay at home. Get groceries once per week."

The government told Campaign that it is using public-health campaigns, daily media briefings, social media ads, online support and (most recently) texts sent to the population to disseminate information. The information machine is running at full capacity.

But these are unprecendented times and there's an argument that the model being used – one established by the public-information campaigns of old – is not cutting it. So Campaign asked the industry what the government can do to improve its messaging.

Rania Robinson

Chief executive and partner, Quiet Storm

In some ways, they have been quite clear, but the problem is that there are so many contradictions around the message itself. "Stay home and stay away from people unless you really have to go out" is open to interpretation, but it is the reality.

Putting my personal politics aside, I recognise what a tough job the government has to do. Boris Johnson could be more transparent around the inherent contradictions involved in any solution, because none of this is black and white, and it can’t be solved with a big campaign line. The government can’t just be extreme and scare the shit out of everybody, but they could work harder to understand the nudges and micro-messaging that influence everyday decisions and behaviour.

Dylan Williams

Chief strategy officer, Droga5 London

As someone who grew up listening to everything an animated cat called Charley suggested, I’m of a generation raised on the power of brilliant public-information campaigns. Right now, there is both a real thirst for guidance and a yearning for the conversational currency that great creativity provides. And with social media flying, newspapers reporting 70% uplifts in unique visits around virus-related stories and even linear TV viewing bullish, the government has an attentive audience. Moreover, if adtech blockers are keeping brands away from blacklisted words like "coronavirus", then the price of placement right at the heart of the story is collapsing.

The conditions for the state to harness our creative industries and support the nation through this crisis have never been more favourable. Investing even a fraction of the £46m spent on the "Get ready for Brexit" campaign, whilst eschewing the heavy-handed Orwellian undertones, would surely be in the public interest right now. Of course, if such investment is not forthcoming, then that is a communication strategy in itself...

Tammy Einav

Joint chief executive, Adam & Eve/DDB

In these unprecedented circumstances which are frightening, uncertain and rapidly changing, it is imperative that all messaging is clear, instructive and doesn’t leave itself open to interpretation. Prevarication is for saving face, not saving lives. Measures such as guaranteed financial packages to help businesses provide much-needed reassurance, but this is harder to do with unknown quantities like the duration or scale of the crisis. The PM’s address last night [Monday] saw a pivot away from appeasement and platitudes towards a bold line, which, though undeniably tough, at least serves to impart a measure of control in a world upended.

Benedict Pringle


"It takes a genius level of poor communication to end up with the bars full and the shelves empty," observed Ken MacLeod. As an author of near-future dystopian novels, his analysis of our predicament is predictably perceptive.

The PM’s proclamations are being ignored by people who think the problem is being over-egged, as well as by those who think it’s much worse.

To improve trust, Johnson should regularly acknowledge that the situation is uncertain and lay out possible future scenarios further in advance. This will prevent doubt creeping in when there are (inevitable) changes in position, as people won’t question previous guidance.

Ash Bendelow

Managing director, Brave

The government is doing many things right in difficult circumstances – hosting daily national briefings, focusing on one or two key messages per day, working visibly hand in glove with scientific experts and healthcare professionals, and repeating key message, soundbites and quotes in the same briefings.

We can see how they have delicately navigated a fine line between not being alarmist – creating widespread panic and hysteria that brings about further and additional problems around social order – with the messages being taken seriously enough to effect the behavioural change they need.

Three improvements:

  • Language: don’t tiptoe around not wanting to use certain words – use the word "LOCKDOWN". Everyone gets what it is, what it means and the inference of severity. This changes behaviour.
  • Context: contextualise the modelling more to create behaviour change – for example, we have 20,000 intensive care unit beds and 16,000 are currently being used. We will run out of capacity by next Tuesday if people don’t follow guidance. This helps people understand impacts of behaviour.
  • Visual: Covid-19 is largely an invisible killer that people still don’t fully understand – show the realities of our hospitals and our frontline healthcare superheroes in the national briefings. This appeals to emotions to affect behaviour.

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