The response to the UK government’s new message “Stay Alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives” has been mixed to put it mildly. A flurry of blogs and tweets from frustrated and aghast communications professionals critiqued it for its vagueness and ambiguity. Political leaders from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were blunter, stating they would continue with the Stay at Home message, as the new message was mixed and therefore risked more lives. The UK’s official opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said it lacked clarity. Journalists simply ask: “What does ‘be alert ‘mean?” And an old army joke reappeared – “Don’t be a lert” – a barrack-room response to the “Be Alert” counter-terrorism posters plastered around military establishments during the 1970s and 1980s.
Things became a bit clearer (but not much) when the PM addressed the nation. He outlined the phases of recovery and connected the “Stay Alert” message to the new Alert tracking app and the introduction of a traffic-light-style Alert system that correlates the public health threat level and the public information guidance given. It was a bit like watching Boris trying to put a saddle on a horse after it has bolted. The new alert system was also mocked on social media, with comparisons drawn between the traffic light system and a ‘PERi-ometer’ from a well-known chicken restaurant chain.
There is no pleasure writing any of this. The nation needs reassurance to help return to its ‘new normal’. It shouldn’t be like this: we shouldn’t be joking about something this serious. Yesterday (11 May), YouGov conducted a snap poll which confirmed the country is divided: 44% support the easing of rules, 43% do not, 13% are unsure. We need a pragmatic, risk-management-style approach to move forward, plan for the future, make our own decisions and unpick what is relevant and appropriate so we can understand what “Be Alert” looks like in our professional and personal lives. So where do we start?
Understanding the fear factor
Back in March (just before the UK lockdown was announced and people started fighting over toilet rolls), I blogged about fear and the need for clear direction.
As the lock-down eases, empowering individuals and organisations decision-making will increase. Government direction will shift to guidance and individual risk assessment. However, the fear factor remains, as revealed in the Ipsos MORI poll published last week. People are still scared. This is because the perception of risk among the general public is still high, with the exception of a small minority.
On evaluating individual risk, Sir David Spiegelhalter, statistician and member of the UK Government’s SAGE Committee, offers some perspective. On how the coronavirus is age-related to over-75s, he was asked on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show on 10 May how scared should most of us be of dying from COVID-19?
“As lockdown is being released, we are moving from an extensional, societal threat into risk management. It is very important that we are aware of what the risks are …
People’s anxiety is roughly proportional to the actual risk they face.”
He went on to explain individual risk is directly related to age group, highlighting the following statistics to illustrate the complexity of individual risk in a single message:
- Under 15s: 10million – 2 COVID-19 deaths recorded. “Staggeringly low risk” in this section of the population.
- Under 25s: 17million – 26 COVID-19 deaths recorded. “Low risk.”
- Over-90s: COVID-19-related deaths account for 1% of population. “The risk is 10,000 times higher than in younger people.”
- By age, “risk doubles by age every six to seven years”
In summary, when it comes to perception of risks, consider the age profile of those with whom you are communicating and refer to the statistics for perspective. The fear factor is consistent across the majority of the population, yet the risks are not. Factoring this in will greatly assist in addressing the fear factor.
My guest blog last week, “Getting People back to work safely – a risky business? by Occupational Health Physician Dr David Slavin, explains the tolerability of risk and risk perception in more detail, and how it relates directly to getting people back to work safely. My blog published yesterday, “Returning to work – a tough sell”, examines in more detail communication considerations when allaying risk perceptions to assure people when it is safe both to travel to and work in an adjusted workplace with new policies, guidelines and working practices. These are all part of the necessary risk assessment that employers are obliged to do, mitigating the risk factors associated with the spread of coronavirus and helping to keep people safe.
Deconstructing the message
Once the fear factor and individual risk perception are broadly understood, addressing any confusion is the next stage. When examining anything that is understood, misunderstood or causes ambiguity, stripping it right back to the bare elements is key in order to fix anything that needs fixing:
“Stay at Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives” follows a simple sequencing: Direction – Reason – Result.
“Be Alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives” is causing confusion as the sequencing has altered to: Behaviour – Reason – Result. The “Be Alert” message is wide open to interpretation and subjectivity.
Attempts to provide clarity have since been made by various government ministers, including the Prime Minister via his Twitter account. We continue to socially distance at all times when outside of our households: no change. The guidelines related to when and why we can go outside our homes has changed: this is contributing to the confusion, as everyone has different reasons to leave home.
The communications challenge now is that there is no ‘vanilla’ approach to advising people what “Be Alert” looks like. Everyone has different circumstances and priorities. Everyone will have a different risk perception. We have a number of different stakeholder groups and risk groups (by age). Deconstructing the message and then addressing the fears and uncertainties in relevant stakeholder groups is the best way to ensure clarity of message and maximise impact. In the case of a workforce, it is likely to be one or a combination of:
- Critical employees returning to the workplace
- Key contractors and suppliers
- Employees who continue to work from home
- Furloughed employees
At the most fundamental level, communicators should do a simple stakeholder analysis. A message for a twenty-something returning to work with “Be Alert” public transport concerns will be different to a forty-something who can commute but has child-care issues and workplace social-distancing concerns. There is no easy way to pick out what is relevant, but a good place to start is to examine the UK Government’s FAQs and keep a watchful eye on the media for further announcements and clarification. In relation to communications with employees, the “COVID-19 Safe” guidelines are due to be published later this week: this will also provide important information for those returning to the workplace.
Finally, whilst this is a challenging task with such a divergence of views and opinions, understanding risk perception and fear, using what resources we have and focusing on communications outcomes will have a greater impact on coming out of the lockdown in a safe and measured way.
For further crisis communications guidance on helping develop and deliver the return-to-work plans, please do have a look at my blog titled “Returning to work – a tough sell” published yesterday (11 May 2020).
“Brits split on changes to coronavirus lockdown measures”:
Coronavirus-outbreak FAQs: what you can and can’t do (as individuals):
The UK Government’s advice for England, covering all areas of activity:
The Andrew Marr Show interview with Sir David Spiegelhalter, statistician and member of the UK Government’s SAGE committee
“Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy”:
Nando’s PERi-ometer: https://www.nandos.com/food/
UPDATE: Useful References:
“Guidance to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic."