Three lessons from the coronavirus update communications
Posted on 11th May 2020
It’s clear that a lot of communications effort went into the government’s announcement on 10 May about the next steps to manage the coronavirus outbreak.
It was never going to be an easy job to deliver the messages that people wanted to hear – and some that they didn’t want to hear – in a timely, effective and reassuring way.
No doubt, later on, there will analysis of how effective these communications were. However, we thought it would be helpful to take a look at what can we learn now
The first important point is that everyone’s filters were dialled to 10 – selectively listening for what the answers to the questions that were most important to them.
Lesson 1: You can’t answer everyone’s questions in one statement
Solution: Prioritise the most important message that everyone needs to hear and emphasise it at least three times. Since the announcement was made during the VE 75th anniversary celebration weekend, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that one of the masters of repetition for impact was Churchill.
So, rather than starting with “It is now almost two months since the people of this country began to put up with restrictions on their freedom”, it might have been clearer to start with the statement that appears close to the end of the statement “We must continue to control the virus and save lives”.
Lesson 2: Manage expectations
Solution: It’s an age-old communications rule and it involves repetition again; ‘Tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them again’. This will help to dial down the selective listening filter and focus attention. But, before you do that, make sure you add the payoff that will keep people interested.
So, the next step could easily have been to say; ‘I now want to give everyone a picture of what will happen next. I personally thank you all for working so hard to keep family, friends and key workers safe and to protect our NHS. I recognise all the effort that has been made so far and I will outline what we will do next to build on what we have achieved’.
Lesson 3: Say three things simply, and signpost
Solution: While recognising that people want a lot of answers, and knowing it’s important to be open and honest, we need to recognise that people can only handle a few ideas at a time. To avoid the criticism of raising more questions than you have answered, focus on the things that you can say simply and clearly and tell people where they can find out more.
So, here’s the Tesserae version of the PM’s statement:
“We must continue to control the virus and save lives. That’s my main message to you tonight.
“I personally thank you all for working so hard to keep family, friends and key workers safe and to protect our NHS.
“I recognise all the effort that has been made so far. Tonight, I outline what we will do next to build on what we have achieved
“Firstly, I want you to know that by adopting social distancing measures, we have protected our country from an unparalleled catastrophe which could have resulted in many thousands more deaths.
“I can confirm that the death rate is coming down and that hospital admissions are coming down.
“However, there is a very real risk of a second spike, so we must all stay alert.
“I know that many of you are fearful of infection and worried about what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to your livelihood as well as your mental and physical wellbeing.
“Now, I will give you an outline of the plan we have developed to address both of these very legitimate fears.
“Different parts of the country are experiencing different rates of infection, so our response must be flexible and proportionate.
“The plan will depend on what the figures and our scientific evidence tells us as the situation continues.
“What I can tell you without a doubt is that there we are resolute across Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and we will defeat this together.
“Secondly, I can reassure you that our top priority is still to control the virus and save lives.
“To do this, five things must happen:
“We must protect our NHS so that people who need care can receive it.
“The rate of infection – which we have called R – must continue to fall
“The tragic number of deaths must also continue to fall.
“We must overcome the worldwide challenge to provide enough PPE to the people who need it.
“We must make sure that any measures we take from now on do not contribute to an increased rate of infection.
“While this sounds simple, we will be taking a lot of different things into account, so we have created a new Covid Alert System showing you, at-a-glance, how all of these things are playing out.
“The higher the alert level, the tougher and stricter our control measures will have to be.
“There will be five alert levels where One tells us that coronavirus is no longer present in the UK, while Level Five is the most critical, where we risk the NHS becoming overwhelmed.
“During lockdown we have been at Level Four. And, again, I thank you for your part in achieving this.
“Finally, we must continue to control and drive down R – the infection rate – with a world-beating system for testing people who might be infected, and for tracing their contacts.
“We will be testing literally hundreds of thousands of people every day. This will allow us to see where covid-19 strikes in your local area, as well as giving us a national picture.
“I can tell you that our current R is between 0.5 and 0.9, which is below one. This meets one of our conditions to control this virus.
“On its own this isn’t enough to justify ending the current successful lockdown measures.
“However, we can take the first careful steps to modify them.
“Here’s what this means for you:
“You should still work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must.
“However, if you are in construction or manufacturing, for instance, and can’t work from home, you should to go to work if you can do so safely. We are giving employers information about what this means, and they will be able to tell you if you can return to work.
“Social distancing will remain in place on public transport which limits capacity. If you can’t travel to work by car, on foot or cycle, see if it’s possible to change your working hours to avoid the busiest times.
“From Wednesday, you can take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise. You can sit in the sun in your local park and play sports with members of your own household as long as you follow the social distancing rules.
“As long as infection rates and death rates continue to fall and we are confident that we can continue to protect the NHS and key workers, we will be able to take further steps.
“Depending on the figures and scientific evidence, these could include:
Year 1 and Year 6 primary school children returning to school on or after 1 June
secondary pupils with exams next year having some time with their teachers before the summer holidays, and
in July, at the earliest, re-opening some of the hospitality industry and other public places with social distancing still in place.
“To prevent re-infection from abroad, it will soon be the time to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air.
“We will continue to review progress locally, regionally, and nationally. If there are increases in R or any other causes for concern, we will not hesitate to put on the brakes.
“So, in summary, we have achieved an extraordinary outcome in controlling the progress of this virus and we have saved many lives as a result.
“We will continue to rely on the figures and scientific evidence to decide how to move forward.
“We have plans in place to take small, reasonable steps to allow people to work, exercise, return to education, and perhaps to enjoy food and drink outside with their household, where the evidence shows it can be done safely.
“However, if there is evidence to indicate that the risk levels are increasing, we will not hesitate to act.
"We are committed to keeping you up to date, so please visit the coronavirus page on the .gov.uk website for the latest information.
“And, please remember, we must stay alert, control the virus and save lives.”
At the very least, it is almost half the length of the original, which should help people to remember the key points.
We’re always happy to take part in a lively discussion with fellow professionals – or anyone really – so please get in touch to share your views.
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