UK government's coronavirus messaging has yet to hit home

Is Whitehall missing 'deep expertise' of former in-house agency COI?

"You must stay at home," Boris Johnson told the UK in an emergency, televised address at 8.30pm on Monday night, in what amounted to a tacit admission that his government’s communications over coronavirus have failed to hit home so far.

The world is facing an unprecedented health emergency, so it is important to acknowledge that many people in government, the NHS and beyond are working hard in difficult and fast-changing circumstances – even if the Johnson administration has looked like it is playing catch-up.

It has been three weeks since the crisis first began in the UK and there has been progress. 

"There’s an absolute understanding of handwashing for 20 seconds, there’s a strong recognition of the need for two metres’ distance, there’s pretty good recognition of the need for seven days’ isolation," a source involved in government communications says.

No10's decision to launch daily, televised briefings from 16 March and to provide a lot of advice on its website, gov.uk, and on Facebook and other online platforms have been important building blocks in the comms response – plus there has been the offer of financial support to businesses.

A Cabinet Office source credits its Covid-19 communications hub, a cross-government effort to co-ordinate activity, and claims its public-information campaigns have reached an estimated 95% of adults an average of 17 times.

Turning political intent into behaviour change 

However, multiple people who have worked on UK government advertising in the recent past say they have been "surprised" at the piecemeal nature of its coronavirus messaging so far.

They say the communications have lacked creative impact (for example, the unremarkable green-and-black NHS messaging) and appeared disjointed across different media channels, particularly when it comes to advertising.

There has been relatively heavy spend on social media and news publishers, but limited use of other platforms with mass broadcast reach, such as TV and out-of-home.

The government’s own scientific advice has also rapidly evolved and changed – starting with handwashing for 20 seconds and "social distancing", schools staying open and then closing, and now everyone needing to stay at home, while still allowed out to take exercise once a day and food shopping.

"Advertising needs to reflect policy," the source who is working with government on coronavirus communication says, conceding a degree of frustration. "It’s difficult for advertising messaging to say anything other than what the Department of Health, the Cabinet Office and No10 feel happy saying."

Another factor, some former government advertising people say, is that Whitehall no longer has its own in-house agency, the Central Office of Information, which was known for award-winning work on advertising effectiveness but was axed by the Conservatives after the 2010 general election in an austerity drive.

Instead, many stakeholders, including No10, the Cabinet Office and Public Health England, must work together, with the support of agencies including MullenLowe, Wavemaker and Manning Gottlieb OMD.

"There’s a vacuum when Boris Johnson says something [at his daily press conferences] and then ‘What does that mean in terms of behaviour?’," one ad industry figure with close links to Whitehall says. "COI took political intent and turned it into behavioural insight and practice that people could take into their daily lives at speed – and that’s missing."

This ad industry figure claims: "There’s much less deep expertise in government than there used to be with COI."

Some brands, including a number of the big grocers, have arguably been more adept at communicating with consumers in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak.

'Lacking in clarity' 

The government has produced some video ads, with chief medical officer Chris Whitty speaking directly to camera and graphics to highlight symptoms of coronavirus.

But the lack of a memorable and powerful, public information-type film that explains how citizens should change their behaviour became a major concern last weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of Britons ignored advice on social distancing and gathered in parks and food markets, and went on day trips to tourist spots such as Snowdonia. 

Images of packed trains on the London Underground have followed this week. Transport for London ran a reduced service yet some commuters ignored advice to work from home.

"It's all very well criticising people for flocking to the countryside/pubs etc or visiting their mums but the government messaging has been severely lacking in clarity," Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC technology correspondent, tweeted over the Mothering Sunday weekend. "There should be a public information film running in every ad break/between every TV and radio programme." 

Paul Waugh, executive editor of politics at HuffPost UK, said on Twitter: "I think the ‘6ft apart’ rule is perfectly possible, but am amazed there are not public information adverts on TV showing people exactly how to do it – in parks, shops, etc. Telling-by-showing is the best way to get the msg across, not a jumble of words from a No. 10 lectern."

Ed Miliband, Labour’s former leader, made a similar point after Johnson gave his TV address on Monday evening – without any on-screen imagery to support the prime minister’s key messages.

"Constructive request: more guidance/videos/messaging from Government urgently needed for people about social distancing when they do go outside. Some people are still unsure/unclear about it," Miliband tweeted.

A person who is involved in the government’s coronavirus effort acknowledges there have been "slightly conflicting messaging" and limited "volumes of spend" so far, but says there also needs to be recognition that this is an unprecedented situation.

"It’s more complicated than Brexit – there’s a lot more to say and it’s faster-moving," this person says. "It’s far more fragmented, with different government departments, and the scientific advice has been changing."

Another insider points out that generating earned media, including news coverage, has been a central part of the strategy.

More paid-for advertising is in the pipeline, which should easily pass the estimated £46m spent on "Get ready for Brexit".

Expect greater public information on TV. There are plans for the government to air short, daily messages during primetime shows – for example, the centre break on ITV’s Coronation Street.

Whitehall is also talking to some of the broadcasters about helping the government on creating and producing the content, which could include animation to bring the subject to life.

The initial focus has been on health. Now it's about getting people to remain indoors and then it will look to build community spirit, according to one person familar with what's being planned, who adds: "There is an opportunity for the advertising sector to get behind this."

Some things still seem disjointed. A former Whitehall source was astonished to hear radio ads for road safety and other non-coronavirus government campaigns over the weekend when they could have been swapped for urgent health messaging. 

The proof that the message is finally getting home will be if people stay at home.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief at Campaign

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