Three points for government comms – and three for me – during lockdown

This week marks the start of a new financial year for us at Social, and my first as managing director of our South West division. I enter it with mixed emotions.

On the upside, I feel elated at our achievements in this most challenging of years. Our team doubled its size and turnover in 2020. We raised the bar in the quality of our work and the type of clients we’re supporting. We’ve adjusted brilliantly to enforced changes in how we work. We’ve been flexible, empathetic and innovative in supporting our clients.

While I don’t take any of this for granted, it is tempered by sadness, anger and despondency at the national response to the pandemic. As a comms person, I’ve despaired at what I’ve seen and heard about events leading up to the latest lockdown announcement.

In an attempt to set this out in coherently, I’ve split this post into two sections: three things I’d change about the government’s handling of this crisis and three things I will do myself. It’s not intended as a plan; it’s more a way to collate my thoughts and feelings to help me to look ahead with clarity.   

Trust is precious

It’s true that social and economic factors make this pandemic exceptionally challenging for all governments. Mistakes are inevitable. Cultural and political factors within government have made it worse than it might have been, in my view.

The outcome is that trust in government is ebbing away at a time when it should be a prized asset. This chart shows how confidence in the government’s approach has fallen drastically in the months since lockdown was first imposed in March.

YouGov COVID-19 tracker into government handling

I’m reluctant to call this a ‘PR problem’, as some MPs have done. I know good comms people within government, who are highly skilled, strategic and principled. I wonder how involved comms professionals have been in some of the things we’ve seen over the weekend.  

Here are the three things I’d fix to help bring confidence back.

#1 Ditch anonymous briefings: I’ve written before about how spin culture is looking increasingly out of step with the public’s need for clarity. Off-the-record briefings to select media on issues of national importance are part of that problem. If you think about it, the act of briefing select titles means information that’s shared with the public is framed by these outlets. I’ve received such briefings as a journalist and there was always an agenda at play. In this case, it’s possible that the briefings to The Mail, The Times and broadcasters on Friday were intended to bounce a reluctant Prime Minister into lockdown, although there is wider speculation on this point.

Whatever the motive, the leak led to Saturday’s hasty, chaotic briefing, a day of speculation beforehand and untold levels of public anxiety and confusion. To add to the sense of farce, lobby correspondents were being tipped off anonymously about a ‘leak enquiry’ within government. Or, to call it what it is: a leak about a leak enquiry.

These briefings are common. But this is a national crisis, not a political campaign. People and businesses need clarity. Information from government needs an owner who will stand behind it. It needs to have legitimacy. It needs to happen in a timely way, and not come out on the drip. Everyone within the machine needs to be clear on their roles, and communication responsibilities. Anonymous briefings on such important policy areas should stop, without exception.

#2 Look beyond the next day’s headlines: I’m of the view that the obsession with tomorrow’s headlines has created worse outcomes for everyone.

Rather than be seen to ‘cave in’ to demands for a two-week circuit-breaker, the government dug-in before being forced to commit to a longer lockdown. The data on COVID increases has told the story that many people grasped before politicians in England acted on it.

Number of people in UK with at least one case of COVID 19 (as of 31 October 2020)

In trying to remain in control of ‘the narrative’ and delaying what’s seemed inevitable, control of the situation has gone. This runs counter to any advice decent comms professionals would offer on a crisis. Address the issue as it is, not as you want it to be. Explain what you intend to do early and often. Be clear. Don’t bullshit. You will get found out.

#3 Collaborate, rather than campaign: If local leadership means anything, it must be based on partnership and understanding what each other brings to the table.

The fragility of Westminster’s master-servant approach to how it deals with – rather than works with – city regions has been laid bare by its stand-off with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham over government support. Burnham told a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee recently about his frustration at Westminster ‘having all the power and all of the money’, with cities going cap-in-hand to government for support. At times, it seems local leaders have huge responsibility without the power or resources to do anything with it

Segment of Metro mayors evidence to government on 22 October 2020

Within local teams, this frustration is keenly felt. I’ve had senior city council comms people tell me this weekend they’ve had no information from government about lockdown, despite having to implement the response on the ground. They will work flat out this week to keep local people and businesses informed.

City regions badly need the power and ability to influence things if ‘levelling up’ is to be any more than a slogan. Those who live and work in these regions are more acutely aware of the failings of the status quo. I hope they demonstrate an appetite for change and get behind their regional leaders to make it happen quickly.

My response to lockdown #2

This is a personal perspective, which outlines my thoughts on things that I can’t directly influence. Thinking too much about what I can’t change and constantly hearing about it on the news is a recipe for meltdown. I’m no good to anyone in that state, so I’m focusing on the things that I can do something about. Here are three of those.

#1 Focus on the opportunities: All around me this year, I’ve been lifted by the potential of the work we’re involved in to provide real and lasting benefits to the communities in which they are based. This and the outpouring of community spirit which has brought people together to support each has been inspiring.

We’re involved in communications and engagement to deliver a new enterprise zone at Gravity in Somerset, which has potential to provide thousands of high quality clean-tech jobs when it’s developed. We’re supporting the £85m regeneration of Gloucester city centre and the development of a new garden community in Harlow in Essex. These developments will be game-changers for the economic and social wellbeing of those areas. This is what ‘levelling-up’ looks like at close quarters. Communicating well is essential to making them happen. Ministers are welcome to check any of these projects out when lockdown ends.

#2 Do good: We have been proud to provide pro-bono support this year for a grant-funded programme set up by our clients United Communities and Solon South West housing associations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Their Coronavirus Community Fund supported 27 organisations from Bristol, providing nearly £100,000 to groups whose access to funding has been severely reduced this year. This is part of our commitment to help good causes which make a real difference to people’s lives. As founding members of the Good Business Charter and a values-driven company, we’re committed to doing the right thing rather than the thing that looks right. Being profitable enables us to do this.

#3 Do it the right way: Clear communications and building strong relationships with stakeholders is at the heart of this work. You won’t get anonymous briefings from us if we’re working with you. We’re clear on who we are, and who we represent at all times. As a newly-chartered PR practitioner, I’m signed up to an ethical code of conduct. Those who work with us know that we will represent them in the right way. This is essential to building the trust needed to move things forward. ‘Holding the line’ only works if there’s substance behind it. We will focus on the outcomes. The rest is noise.  

Adapt or fail

It may be too late for some people and their advisors to change their approach, even as everything changes around them.

People increasingly expect organisations and brands to do what’s right, honour their promises and be transparent. Those who over-promise or try to spin their way out of a fix look evermore out of step with this sentiment. Within a generation, those who want better ways of doing business are more likely to prevail.   

I’m looking forward to supporting them and would love to chat if you’re one of those people.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash