When the situation is complex, keep the Comms simple

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I remember someone at the start of the pandemic who was in the know (genuinely in the know, not someone who knew a friend of a friend), sharing at a briefing to church leaders that when the Government said it was following the science, this included behavioural scientists. My initial reaction to that was “uh oh” because if there is anything more likely to cause problems, it is people thinking thy can second guess the inner workings of the public’s minds and nudge them by tricks and games into behaving a certain way.

Well, I think we have seen the consequences of this. I remain of the view that the pandemic was going to be difficult for any government, that to be honest most of the response will have been driven by the civil service not the politicians so you would have got the same outcome with Corby, Starmer or even Farage in power and that they have got some things right.  However, there are some things that have gone tragically wrong including failure to seal the borders early and to protect care homes.  Alongside those things, communications have been an absolute disaster too. The responsibility for this lies partly with the Government but also partly with the Opposition and partly with the media.

I say partly with the Opposition and the Media because they have treated the pandemic as a conventional party-political story about optics and positioning. Also because at times their response has been to speculate on things not covered, complain about confusion and go around publicly saying “this is confusing” rather than focusing on getting clarification.  Treating the pandemic as primarily a conventional political story means that the big name political journalists have led the way. Instead of having medical and science journalists asking probing questions about the virus the NPIS and the vaccines we’ve got gotcha journalism with the papers more interested in which particular celebrity or decision maker has proved to be a hypocrite this week. If the story includes a sex scandal too then all the better.

And the Government communications have been lousy too with mixed messages being sent out. These have been mercilessly mocked  as best represented by Boris in effect saying “Stay at home…don’t stay at home” in the same breath.

The latest example is the way in which we are getting both optimistic messages about the possibility of lockdown ending and easing alongside claims that social distancing and facemasks might remain until the Autumn. What a confusing message to send, especially just after there’ve been some tested nerves around the efficacy of the Oxford Vaccine against variants.  I suspect that the behavioural scientists are trying to dampen optimism and temper expectations to stop people rushing out as soon as they’ve had their vaccine but they risk causing people to think “what’s the point of a vaccine and what’s the point of complying now if it will make no difference?”

You see, the Government have missed one of the most important lessons in communication. “Keep it simple.” At theological seminary I was taught that the evidence of good learning and a mastery of complex subjects was not the ability to make things sound complicated and confusing but to be ble to communicate clearly and simply so that all could understand.   

Part of the problem I suspect is that we are led by committee, rarely a good thing. So SAGE meets and we don’t know whether there is uniform agreement or a diverse range of views because we get minutes that use typical consensus committee conclusions. How many times has the government been lambasted for not following the expert advice only for us to check back on what SAGE actually said only to discover that they talk about ranges and packages of possible options?

At the same time, the media report that sources within SAGE, some of the experts are saying this or that. The target audience for these briefings is not in fact you and me, the readers and listeners. No, the aim is to build up a media narrative in order to strengthen your hand when negotiating the way forward in the committee. These are usually off the record briefings and so we are left clueless as to whether the person making the observations actually has expertise in a particular subject area. It is one thing for the behavioral scientist to say “we think we need to keep social distancing a bit longer.” It is quite another for the virologist to say “hmm -we think you will still need NPIs.” The former leads to questions about approach and communications, the latter would lead to panic concerning the vaccines.

What we need is clear and simple communication. Simple does not have to be simplistic (another mistake made). Rather, we should be told openly

  • This is the plan
  • This is the reasoning behind our plan
  • These are the potential complications and risks to the plan
  • These are the steps that we are taking to alleviate the risks

So, for example in this case, the comms might go along these lines

  • We aim to start a phased ending of restrictions beginning with schools returning in March. Other lockdown measures will be removed by May and then we’ll phase out social distancing towards November.
  • The reasoning for this is that we want to get schools opened first and we want to make sure that the vaccine is having its desired effect. It will be harder to switch back to measures if there is a return of the virus
  • The risks we have to consider is that whilst the vaccine is being rolled out, the virus is still mutating and it will take time to know what variants are in place and the efficacy of vaccines against them. For these reasons it seems sensible to remain cautious in our approach.

You see, it is possible to communicate a plan and reasoning covering complex scenarios In just three bullet points. Now, we can apply this to church life too. Life is complex and messy and we face all sorts of challenging decisions. However the best thing to do is to be upfront with a congregation about decisions. They can cope with changing circumstances leading to different outcomes providing you level with them from the start.