Boris Johnson's dangerously blurred message

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Boris Johnson's dangerously blurred message

(Photo by TOBY MELVILLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“Rethink. Reskill. Reboot” is the government’s latest three-word campaign slogan. It was on an ad that showed a ballet dancer tying her shoes alongside the caption: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. She just doesn’t know it yet.” People were quick to point out it takes 10 years to train to be a ballet dancer. Wasn’t it a bit dream crushing to suggest #Fatima should chuck it all in to do whatever “cyber” is. People indignantly wondered whether the government cared about the careers and livelihoods of people in the arts, which were being ruined by Covid. The government was again trying to put out a fire caused by its own poor communications.

Oliver Dowden, the Department of Culture and Media Secretary, was quick to clarify that the campaign had nothing to do with his department. He agreed it was “crass” and got it immediately pulled. The damage, however, was done. #Fatima was the third own goal in a hat trick of government comms failures.

In an interview on the pandemic, Rishi Sunak was criticised for saying that people working in the Arts needed to “adapt” and suggested there would be “fresh and new opportunities”. He then had to deny he was encouraging workers in the Arts industry to retrain.

Then we had another algorithm issue. A 50-question government jobs career assessment tool backfired. It was  supposedly aimed at identifying potential new careers opportunities for those affected by Covid. Instead, it provided a string of unhelpful career suggestions. My wife tried it out. She is 62, but was pointed towards reskilling to becoming a boxer or football referee. “Cyber” may be a growth area for jobs in the future, yet when Kate Devlin, a computer scientist and AI specialist, filled out the career assessment tool she was also told she might be better off as a boxer.

Others had roles like “pilot” or “cinema projectionist” as their reskilling option. This is at a time when Cineworld announced 5,500 people in the UK would lose their jobs and Easyjet confirmed 1,500 aircrew would go part-time. Now imagine you are one of the current record number of redundancies. Might this make you feel that the government wasn’t taking employment conditions seriously?

Spoof #Fatima ads went viral. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, capitalised on the government’s marketing horror by repurposing one such ad at Prime Minister’s Questions, “Boris’s next job could be on the backbenches — he just doesn’t know it yet”. Parliament laughed too. Yet, what now amounts to government communication isn’t funny. Effective and professionally executed public information communication really matters in a health crisis. When the government and its communications become the joke, a very difficult job becomes even harder.

Government public information communication is not meant to be political communication for the political party in power. When you are spending millions from the public purse, the least you should do is have messages that are well researched and evaluated, ideally using independent experts. Recasting important public information with a political eye muddies and confuses the messaging. This is why government coronavirus communication has got into such a bad mess.

The government needs to stop marking its own homework. It is understandable that Johnson wants to scrub off the tarnish of the virus. He’s keen to stress that Covid has not robbed him of his mojo. He doesn’t want to do bad news. He sees it as off-brand. But this has led to a modus operandi where effective public information or crisis communications ends up put to political use. As a result, the message is no longer clear.

The bear trap that Johnson, Cummings and the cabinet have walked right into was inadvertently laid by David Cameron in 2010. As part of austerity he closed down the Central Office of Information (COI) and its role was absorbed into the Cabinet Office, which Cummings now effectively controls.

Introduced after the 2nd World War, the COI’s brief was to create information films to highlight issues which affected the British public. It was a revolution in how government communication was done, taking wartime learning and applying it to daily life. It wasn’t part of the civil service. It didn’t report into any government department. It had a CEO and was staffed by non-political experts in business, policy and marketing communications. It worked with a roster of independent agencies. Briefs, budgets and appointments all went through a rigorous and transparent procurement process. It provided deep expertise and independence. It was the government’s marketing and communications agency and it didn’t work for any particular party. The COI worked spectacularly well.

As you bring your children up and teach them to “Stop, Look, Listen, Think” as they cross the road, that is a legacy of COI communication. If you “clunk-click” your seat belt, that too is a COI legacy, along with other hugely effective campaigns on smoking, police recruitment, obesity, giving blood and more besides. The independent marketing expertise that made them happen ensured a separation that prevented party politics from affecting the communication. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) Effectiveness awards has a slogan — “if it doesn’t work it doesn’t win”. Over the years, it handed out many awards to COI government public information campaigns.

When, in 1986, the Thatcher Conservative government had to deal with the Aids epidemic, the COI and independent ad agency TBWA developed the “Don’t die of ignorance” campaign. This campaign was put out against the express views of Margaret Thatcher who thought they were in bad taste. Her view was that if you told young people about HIV and unprotected sex, you’d be telling them about things they didn’t know about. The implication was that they would want to do it. How Thatcher dealt with AIDS didn’t taint her government. She never politicised its communication.

If Thatcher the reformer can defer to the independent communication experts, Boris Johnson should be open to doing the same. If Johnson wants to turn the tide of his failing communications efforts, he should reinstate the COI. He should remove control of government public policy communications from the Cabinet Office and from the control of Dominic Cummings.

Johnson’s 80-seat majority shows that Cummings has skills in political campaign communication. But political campaigning is very different to policy or crisis communications. Cummings has no real-world experience in the area he is now meddling in and it shows. His sense of self-belief as a “superforecaster” and as an expert in everything (from AI to SAGE advice) is a dangerous combination when combined with his desire to control.

The original, simple and effective “Stay Home. Protect the NHS, Save Lives” campaign was developed by Mullen Lowe, an independent agency. It was clear. It was inclusive. It told you what to do and it achieved what it set out to do. It didn’t appear to have been party politicised. Until Cummings’s trip to Durham undermined the whole thing, it had the people of Britain and all parties behind it.

But it was suddenly replaced with, “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives”. This seemed to have been rushed through to meet a deadline prior to a series of lockdown relaxations. It resulted in a spate of jokey memes ridiculing the lack of clarity. It does not appear that this idea came from an independent communications agency. Instead, the Telegraph reported that the “Stay alert” slogan was devised by two of Dominic Cummings’s colleagues in the Cabinet Office team, Issac Levido, an Australian political strategist, and Ben Guerin, a New Zealand digital advisor. Levido had previously worked on Johnson’s General Election bid.

Had the “Stay alert” campaign been well designed they wouldn’t have had to supply pages of additional information to explain it. One of the UK’s leading PR gurus, Mark Borkowski, described the campaign as, “Not fit for PR. Says nothing it intends to — while saying everything it doesn’t. Stay alert (already am — but thanks for the reminder), Control the Virus (how? By going out? Or not going out?) Save lives (without the NHS ref this lacks connection).”

The ineffectual nature of “Stay alert” again shows what happens when the line between public information and political considerations is blurred. It wasn’t as if the government wasn’t doing research on its coronavirus communication. The Cabinet Office awarded an £840,000 contract for researching public opinion about government policies (without competitive tender) to Public First as part of its emergency coronavirus appointments. Public First is owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings who helped to co-write the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto. I don’t think for one moment that Public First is not a highly professional research company. The question we don’t know, and the information we can’t see, is what were they briefed by the Cabinet Office to research and how was the research then used?

If these public education campaigns were being effectively researched, it is extraordinary that the “Let’s Get Back” campaign got through. This was a campaign to explain and encourage those with symptoms to get tested. If you put a party-political hat on, it was also a public information campaign that coincidentally celebrated the achievement of the testing capacity. While “Let’s Get Back” as a headline plays well to Johnson’s desire for positivity and the desire (at the time) to get people back in offices and shops, it was only later that the Government realised that they had failed to include “having symptoms” as a condition in the ad. So thousands of people with a lower probability of infection were using up the available tests. They were forced to pull the campaign and change the messaging.

Also consider the confusion regarding mask wearing, combined with the shifting sands of local lockdowns, a set of rules so confused that even the Prime Minister got the regulations wrong during interviews. The government have created a situation that undermines whatever it was trying to persuade people to do in the first place.

There isn’t a government in the world that hasn’t had an eye to the political implications of public information campaigns around coronavirus. But UK government communication is so far gone it can’t see the public policy wood for the political trees. You can’t help but suspect that every public information communication decision is now influenced by focus groups probing how things may also affect the party or Johnson’s reputation.

Even if the government’s campaign objectives are political, it should wake up to the fact that this isn’t working either. There is a controlled regional test that is running in Scotland vs the rest of the UK. The latest Ipsos leadership ranking showing Johnson’s reputation has tanked yet again against Nicola Sturgeon. Meanwhile YouGov’s Westminster Voting Intention suggests that Johnson has lost all of his 20-point (February) lead over Labour.

It is not beneficial to Johnson, the Conservative Party or the British people for communication to keep misfiring. The government must realise that its own success is linked to delivering brilliant crisis communication that the public understands and reacts to. To achieve this it needs to get out of its own way and bring back the COI. In one move, Boris Johnson would remove his personal temptation (and conflict of interest) to politicise government policy communication. They should Rethink. Reskill. Reboot. Dominic’s next career shouldn’t be in public  policy communication — he just doesn’t know it yet.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 84%
  • Interesting points: 86%
  • Agree with arguments: 87%
89 ratings - view all

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