Well I’ll never forget VE Day 75. But for all the wrong reasons. It, and the new government messaging which followed, is a communications car crash.
by Darren Caveney
Remember the date: Thursday 7 May 2020. It’s the day that the front pages of the best-selling national newspapers announced – in joyous fashion – the end of lockdown. It was celebrated like a world cup win.
But drill even just a tiny bit deeper and it is clear that this ‘uniformity of front cover headlines’ wasn’t just a freak coincidence. They’d had word from someone in Government. A nudge, a tip or a wink from someone in power. They all had the proverbial memo from someone.
But by who?
This shift in campaign approach goes deeper too. I know, from respected senior comms people in the public sector who I trust implicitly, that they were told to take down ‘stay home’ messaging from their websites and social media this weekend. Fact.
But by who?
What happened next…
You’ll all have seen images of the conga in Warrington and the picnics in London Fields which followed.
The usual ruck then ensues on social media about whether the images are even real. We all have to double check and establish fact from fiction these days, after all.
Word spread on my street’s WhatsApp group of some undefined celebrations now taking place in the street. It went from 0-60 in no time and before you could properly scratch your befuddled head the streets had been blocked both ends with vans. Party!
I looked outside, through my own front window, and can tell you that previously sensible and pleasant neighbours took to said street for a VE Day drinks session, whilst children played, with bats, balls and bikes. It went on for 5-6 hours. I was genuinely astonished.
I’m the very last person to be a killjoy but this wasn’t right.
Some of these people actually work for the NHS. I bet they don’t tell their colleagues back at work what they did.
The street had observed lockdown to the absolute letter up until VE Day, the day after those newspaper headlines.
Now don’t get me wrong, they didn’t behave badly – in normal times. But we’re not in normal times.
Unofficially blocking the street off was pretty silly and selfish. When the almost inevitable incident happened later that evening and an ambulance was called it wasn’t able to get down the street for 10 minutes or so.
Normally good people had gone off the rails. And whilst I was angry at what I saw, I was more angry with the people who had created this dangerous dismantling of lockdown. Social distancing was gone for the day. I Later learned that similar breakouts took place on surrounding streets.
Will we see a spike in new cases in the coming weeks as a result of VE Day celebrations?
If we’re still ‘following the science’, explain the science behind this one for me?
The ambulance incident
Now I could be dramatic and say that this delay in the ambulance’s call-out could have seen someone die. It didn’t. But this is what crap comms risks.
When it’s the most important public campaign of our generation it’s hugely important to get the comms right.
The latest ‘slogan’
Remember the part of the job when you had a big project or campaign with a budget and external agencies were invited to come in and pitch their creatives to you?
Well image being responsible for the comms for this next stage of the COVID-19 response and being presented with this slogan and artwork?
The words, the clarity, the effectiveness, the style, even the damn colours and typeface – it’s a shit show, right? You’d never invite the agency back to pitch again.
Who is creating this stuff?
The Government has the elite of the UK’s creative industry on tap to help. Why would you not ask them to help?
And there are talented communicators working in Government departments. They’ve clearly not been involved, or not listened to on this.
UK Government comms famously works to the OASIS planning model. This thing hasn’t been near OASIS.
And it won’t be winning any industry (un)awards, that’s for sure.
We can critique the clarity and call to action of the new alert slogan really simply.
It doesn’t work.
It’s open to interpretation, doesn’t make it clear what has changed/not changed.
The hurried ‘slogan explanation’ that was released by Government on Sunday afternoon illustrates there is a major problem here – a simple slogan, by actual definition, should be easily understood. This isn’t.
The PM’s briefing to the nation
Let’s leave aside the politics of all this for now.
13 minutes to explain the “roadmap”? Seriously?
I’m the first to love a simple plan, a plan on a page, an easy read, but 13 minutes is about what you give as the length of time for a job interviewee’s presentation.
13 minutes on a Sunday evening to tell an expectant nation what next is insane.
There are so many questions left hanging.
Go to work if you can’t work from home (but don’t use public transport. Helpful)
You can sunbathe (what, I cam jump in the car to Dorset for a day on the beach now?)
We now have unlimited exercise (so I could cycle to, say, Wales?)
All so incredibly unclear.
What is key to delivering national campaigns?
Many of you will have done this so you’ll know just as well as I do that there are communications fundamentals in ensuring an effective national campaign.
One of them is to understand who is needed to help deliver that message. Get them in a room, virtual or not, and brief them on the campaign – the what, where, when, why and how – it’s been around for donkey’s, it’s standard practice. We all know it.
Those people then, if briefed well and given the tools to do the job, go off and help you deliver the message and the campaign.
I did it years ago for a national recruitment campaign. The success of the campaign hinged upon colleagues around the country playing their part to support and deliver a clear, consistent set of messages and creatives. They did and it all went swimmingly.
Had we not collaborated in this way the whole campaign would have fallen flat.
This is basics. Absolute basics.
So when your see Nicola Sturgeon confirming that the first she knew about the new ‘stay alert’ slogan was in the Sunday Telegraph there is something very wrong with the way this campaign is being developed and communicated.
I’m sure that Scotland’s first minister might crop up fairly early on in any stakeholder mapping exercise for this one.
And, again, what’s with leaking this stuff to a journalist on a national newspaper the day before the national address? Some kind of weird market testing? It’s fair to say it bombed.
So, again, who is behind this comms campaign?
It’s a genuine question. I don’t know.
It’s about time they stepped out of the shadows and explained themselves to the army of good and decent public sector communicators forced into carrying out their dirty work.
The fallout from the WhatsApp group street party…
The day after VE Day, WhatsApp residents were in total denial. Back to chatting about hostas and homemade bread. And people chatted in the street at an exaggerated social distance of at least 6 metres! They knew.
I left the group. Course I did.
I was contacted by one of the group admins afterwards to ask why. I explained my reasons.
She has since left the group too.
All poxy storm in a teacup stuff, of course, when compared to the personal heartbreak some people have been managing these past few weeks.
But it’s a fascinating insight into the division being created through the tangled mess of messaging during this crisis. This street level division hadn’t existed the day before VE Day and that’s a real shame.
That division is much, much broader now, though – we have the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland responding on Sunday by confirming that the ‘stay home’ message absolutely hasn’t changed so now as a block we are out of kilter.
Those responsible for this mess should be ashamed. And sacked.
So post the PM’s Sunday nationwide address nothing much has changed, really. As you were so to speak.
So, why all the faff and confusion? Broadly speaking, ‘stay home’ was understood and was working.
So why change the slogan?
Answers on a post card.
I send love, respect and good luck to those brilliant in-house communicators across the sectors who have to work with this mess in the week ahead.
You deserve so much better. We all do.
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
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Image via Andrew Malone