Comment: Something’s gone wrong in Westminster

Piloting Britain through the coronavirus crisis needs great communication skills, says The PC Agency’s founder Paul Charles

All pilots in the world are taught to aviate, navigate and communicate in times of crisis onboard an aircraft. Yet something’s badly amiss for our chief pilot at Westminster, Boris Johnson. There has been a sense of the government “winging it”.

Before his hospital admission in early April, the prime minister was absolutely clear on the measures Britain needed to take to protect the NHS and save lives.

Yet, the usual energy and past swagger has understandably been lacking since Johnson emerged from intensive care at St. Thomas’ Hospital after the remarkable work done by NHS doctors and nurses to stem Covid-19.

For the government, it has proved easier to switch off Britain than to switch it on again. The communications emerging from Downing Street, especially for the travel and hospitality sectors, have been more messy than message.

There has been a distinct lack of confidence in signalling to the sector exactly when it can open up for business again. While July 4 has been given for “some” hotels in England to re-open, it’s been far from the highly-confident announcement that hotels “will” open again.

As the team at The PC Agency are always advising our clients to do, in a crisis (and Covid-19 is far longer than most crises, which last an average of three days) you have to communicate openly almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is an exhausting but vital element of keeping citizens or consumers on your side.

Compare the British communications approach to that of other countries. In Ireland, such is the confidence and openness that the Irish government has brought forward hotel and restaurant openings by some six weeks, from the initial date of August 10 to June 29, giving over 20 days’ advance notice to hoteliers so they could prepare effectively. There’s a sense of normality returning on the island of Ireland, even amid important social distancing, with Northern Ireland hotels able to open from July 3.

Words have been clear, and highly-supportive of travel sectors in other countries, yet at Westminster the lack of a full-time tourism minister has not helped instil confidence.

On quarantine measures, despite the UK Government claiming to always follow the science, it has failed to communicate the scientific advice, or publish the minutes, from its advisory team at SAGE. You have to ask why?

The quarantine measures are ‘daft’, according to The Sunday Times, but also economically short-sighted and damaging. The communication of this poorly thought-out plan is a remarkable case-study of how not to communicate.

The measures were first leaked to a newspaper three weeks before their introduction, causing consternation in the travel sector and a deluge of questions, which were left unanswered by senior officials. Facts were thin on the ground, despite several meetings with the Department for Transport.

Then, the measures were announced with at least three government departments involved. Messy indeed when you have the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the DfT all being part of the communications response. In times of crisis, clarity is vital. Yet, clarity is impossible when three departments try to align their messaging.

It’s no wonder there has been a lack of support for such measures, criticised by the travel industry and by the public. A survey by independent research group AudienceNet found 85% of the UK population said they lacked confidence in the government being able to successfully implement quarantine.

The government has not performed well in its communications strategy time and time again – on Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, on quarantine measures, and the track and trace app, which was supposed to be “world-beating.”

You’d have thought any government would have access to some of the best communications advice in the world – so why hasn’t our chief pilot sought it out?


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