This is an updated piece of my column in this week’s New European. Updated because I wrote it a few days ago, since when so much has happened. At the time Boris Johnson was still deciding whether to do daily briefings. He having done so, I think the central points I made – about some of the realities of crisis management – have been borne out by the way he conducts himself. His modus operandi has to change. The main updated bits start from the part marked SUGGESTIONS … If you have already seen The New European (required reading, folks!) you can skip straight to that part …
A few weeks ago, when the only Corona we had ever heard of was a beer or a cigar, I was out walking the dog with my daughter, and we were chatting about the state of the world.
I’d just read a book about Auschwitz, and I was wondering whether I would be capable of the resilience required to survive incarceration in such a place and then, if I did, to face the world and build a future. I was then halfway through The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ epic account of the transportation of British and Irish prisoners to Australia in the late 18thCentury, which likewise had me wondering – and doubting – if I would have been strong enough to be able to endure the privations, humiliations, sufferings and injustice that poured out of every page. To be absolutely frank, I am not sure I would have survived the journey.
‘I reckon you would,’ Grace said. ‘I reckon the survival instinct would kick in.’ I remained unsure. Venturing into middle-aged old fartery, I further said that I reckoned Grace’s generation might find it tougher still to deal with real existential challenge. She agreed.
My parents’ generation – my Mum and Dad were both in their late teens when the Second World War broke out – was the last in the UK to have to confront a challenge of that magnitude. Since then, there have been plenty of ups and downs – economic, social, political, military, health, environmental, terrorist – but nothing in the same category as a World War, a Civil War, religious or political revolution, or the Black Death which killed tens of millions in the 14thcentury, among them more than a third of all Europeans.
I said to Grace that as I get closer to pensionable age, I have become more conscious of how improbable it should be that mine might be the first generation to live an entire life without something on a par with one of the above. During the fight against Brexit – remember that? – my concern switched between the political triumph of populism leading to the destruction of European solidarity with a traditional European repeat of history (war), or catastrophic climate change, as being the likeliest intruders into an otherwise largely lucky period.
But maybe it is Covid-19. It is certainly global. It has done something rarely achieved by anyone or anything in these times of media proliferation, bubbles and echo chambers – gone from zero awareness to universal awareness (and impact) in a matter of weeks. It has gone to the top of the agenda of virtually every major organisation in the world, governments, public services, businesses, councils, charities, and virtually every conversation in the world too.
The economic impact is already big, and risks growing as exponentially as the virus. If I just think of my own world … a lot of my professional work is public speaking and last week almost all of speeches in my diary for the weeks and months ahead were cancelled. The travel and airline industry gets the headlines, but the events, exhibitions and conferences industry is going to be among the hardest hit, and I am guessing I am unlikely to qualify for any of Rishi Sunak’s support plans! Hey ho, I’ll write another book.
One of the planned speeches, at one of the now cancelled conferences, was about crisis management. In the briefing call a couple of weeks ago, the organisers asked me to provide a definition of ‘crisis.’ I said: ‘An event or situation that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy you or your organisation unless the right decisions are taken.’
It is as a result of that definition that I limit the number of crises experienced in a decade with Tony Blair to around five: Foot and Mouth; the fuel protests of around the same time, the turn of the century; the Kosovo conflict; September 11; and the wars which followed it, especially Iraq. The global financial crisis, after my time, was exactly that, and we got a taste this week of how lucky we were to have a figure as driven, and detail-obsessed, as Gordon Brown in charge at the time.
The second part of my definition – ‘unless the right decisions are taken’- is every bit as important as the first. Just as Tony Blair, when fighting the election in 2001 on the prosaic slogan ‘Schools and Hospitals First’ did not expect his second term to be defined by September 11 and its consequences, so Boris Johnson did not imagine his ‘Get Brexit Done’ election would be followed so soon after by the coronavirus pandemic. Part of crisis management is adapting quickly and effectively to new, unexpected realities.
I wrote recently about Johnson’s seeming indifference to the consequences of the floods. He is more visible on Covid-19, but given its scale, not that much until the last few days. It might seem odd that someone like me, who has never hidden my belief that Johnson is not fit to be Prime Minister, should be calling on him to be more visible. But whether I like it or not, he is the Prime Minister, and whether he likes it or not, that means being highly visible (and preferably effective) in moments of national crisis.
It is absolutely right to let experts who would normally be operating behind the scenes take centre stage during a crisis such as this one. However, the Prime Minister must become expert too. The advisers advise, but ultimately ministers and above all the Prime Minister must make the decisions, and explain them. Whenever he ‘chucks the ball’ to one of the experts, the sense he emanates is that he is not across the detail. It is the detail that matters.
In a crisis as fluid and fast-moving as this one, a proper communications strategy is one in which the Prime Minister takes the public into his confidence about the process and the reasoning behind his thinking. He has to decide, execute but also narrate a strategy. Both as journalist and politician Johnson has never been one for complexity. In common with most populists, he likes to pretend to people that life is not as complicated as ‘they’ (a loose concept which can be used to dismiss any number of opponent) would have you believe; that everything can be summed up in a snappy phrase … take back control … get Brexit done … wash your hands … whatever it takes … send the virus packing …
We already know that Brexit is a lot more complicated than the slogans which won it; we know too that far from being oven-ready, his Brexit plan is yet to be fully cooked, and only ideology is preventing him from admitting the inevitable truth, that EU and UK institutions so focused on the virus crisis are unlikely to have the time, energy or personnel to get an exit deal completed without an extension to the transition process.
The current crisis will play out in all manner of unexpected ways. He has to be honest with the country about that. He would do himself no harm if he admitted that it is impossible to know with confidence, how many will die, and whether the NHS will be able to cope.
Only if he is honest about the situation will he secure public confidence and understanding for the decisions made to seek to improve it. His ‘we can send it packing in twelve weeks’ boast was foolhardy, and not supported by anything else being said. His earlier boast that he was still shaking hands on hospital visits likewise. Yesterday, there was a simple answer to the question about whether he would be seeing his Mother on Mother’s Day – No – but he cannot resist long, mellifluous rambles and homilies, trying to make people like him, or make people laugh. He should stop worrying about both of those things. The only quality people want to see in him right now, friend and foe, is competence, and the ability to make the right decisions for the right reasons, and explain them clearly.
Winston Churchill, as former Welsh minister Leighton Andrews will be explaining in next week’s New European, was a master of brevity in crisis comms, and instructed his ministers in that art. Johnson, for all his obsession with his hero, is very different. He cannot resist letting his mouth wander with his mind. In a crisis, every word of a leader counts. They have to be weighed carefully. As he strides to the podium next time, he would do wise to commit to memory the splendid advice of a former Tory chief whip, Alastair Goodlad, ‘never use one word if none will do.’
Were I part of the team advising Johnson, I would urge the following –
- Start all briefings with factual updates. How many cases? How many deaths? How many full recoveries? Stats on NHS activity. Stats on Covid-19 tests. Stats on NHS staff tests, and sickness. Stats on ventilators. Stats on protective equipment. Stats on retired NHS staff returning. Explain any regional variations in cases and mortality that may be of interest/concern. Use visuals and graphics. Detail, detail, detail.
- Express sadness and regret at deaths, and thanks for all those in the public services and beyond who are helping. I can barely remember you talking about the dead and dying. Empathy matters, and make sure it is not formulaic.
- Have stories to tell of developments, and recovery, from the UK and elsewhere.
- Have a small team working round the clock on a global analysis of what is happening. Provide a short, distilled account of it. The good news and the bad. The trends, and good ideas, developing. The examples being set. Show the kind of thing that is informing your thinking and decision-making.
- Provide short, simple updates of everything happening across government as it relates to the virus. Pre-empt the difficult issues that are bound to arise, be that prisons, mental health, domestic violence, and so on, and set out the work being done, any changes being made, any messages you want to send. Do not shy from the complexity and the vastness of the possible ramifications. Do not pretend it is easy or straight-forward.
- Explain how any progress made in the fight against the virus, or any setback encountered, relates to announcements made in the past, or being made now. Provide real, factual detail. Visuals, graphics. At each stage you have made changes, and said it was the right time to do so, you have not produced sufficient evidence as to why, or how the change relates to a broader plan. This erodes confidence.
- Consider doing the main briefing in the morning, and an online only, shorter version later in the day. Allows you to control the agenda better, use the morning meeting processes to think through all difficult questions, use the afternoon to maintain momentum and prepare for the next day. There is no such thing as a media deadline in this. Set the rhythm of the day according to your needs, and the reality of the crisis, not the media’s.
- Without being alarmist, be honest about how bad things are, and how bad they might get.
- Do not make major change announcements without thinking through answers to every question likely to arise. It doesn’t matter if the answer is ‘we don’t know 100percent at this stage,’ but in some of the key changes announced, from school closures to pub closures, from help for business to help for workers, there have been too many unanswered questions, and too much confusion created by what you say. I am totally sympathetic to how hard this is, the pressures you are all under, the pace at which events are moving, but it has felt too fly by night.
- Use visuals and graphics, and get them out on social media as you speak. You are getting large TV and radio audiences for the briefings, but most people will continue to absorb the news in bite size chunks and online, after the event. You need to be providing them, verbal and visual.
- Resist the snappy one liners and the smart arse language. I like to think I know my English, but I still had to look up ‘sedulously’ when you told the country that is the approach we should take.
- Use powerful images already established in the media and public mind. I was surprised you did not speak out more strongly against panic buying. This may be your libertarian instincts. But your ‘I am sure everyone will be reasonable’ sounded ridiculous set against what we all knew to be happening – empty shelves, queues and fights in supermarkets, crowded pubs and clubs after you had suggested people didn’t go to them. How much better might it have been if you had played the clip of the Yorkshire nurse in tears because she could not buy the food she needed? To those who seem to think youth makes them invulnerable, play the clip of the Italian doctor talking about the people in their 20s and 30s, or the man in his 30s struggling to breathe as nurses in protective gear rushed around him.
- Be ready to liven up the format. People will tire of the same format, and there is a risk they stop listening. Sad, but true. (Small Brexit point if I may … the two Union flags framed in every shot are there because you thought this was going to be the Getting Brexit Done Parliament … this is a global pandemic. The flags do not help project you as a global leader.)
- Smarten up. Comb your hair before every briefing. This is not a trivial point. In times of crisis, people look to leaders for confidence and strength. If you look a shambles, the fear people sense is that you are a shambles.
- Stop charging into the briefings as though you are chasing down that boy you smashed on the rugby field in Japan. People want to see calmness.
- Stop hitting the lectern as you speak. It buggers up the sound. I know you want to communicate energy and drive, and that is fine. But wind down a couple of gears when you get into full flow.
- No more homilies and rambles. Factual. Businesslike. When in doubt, shut up.
- Emphasise the long haul. Yes, people want hope, but the 12 week line was a line not a plan. ‘Sending the virus packing’ was a line not a strategy.
- End the silly boycott of certain news channels and programmes. It was childish at the time and it feels more childish now.
- Broaden the team. You have to front most of this, but you also have to do a lot of work behind the scenes. Your ministers are also busy, but some more than others. Take three or four of the less busy ones, and turn them into all purpose government communicators, a bit like you did with Rishi Sunak before the election.
Over and out. Meant to be helpful. Now back to deciding whether to postpone my book on depression, BETTER TO LIVE, due out mid-May. I fear it is moving that way. On the one hand, there is going to be an awful lot more need to think and talk about mental health. On the other, as I say above, every event is cancelled, the media is rightly focused on one story to the virtual exclusion of all else, and who knows what mess the distribution networks will be in by then.
Still, the sun is shining, birds are singing, and there is no way that Burnley are going to lose today. Onwards and upwards ….
We can only hope at least some of this is taken onboard.
Would you consider joining if asked?
Given the depth and breadth of the crisis I would rather have the A team regardless of political or football allegiance.
Agree with all 20. I’m in France where the messaging is spot on. It ticks all your boxes.
Alastair – fellow Hampstead resident here…
I am with you on what you say. Sensible and cutting through with messages. There needs to be a clarity and forethought in the government’s comms but it has been lacking. No logistical or contingency planning are discernible.
What a brilliant article: thoughtful, clear, and precise. And it’s a strong reminder of the competence with which you, Blair, etc. handled everything, especially in a crisis. Thank you!
For those doubting the importance of point 18, “Emphasis the long haul”, MIT Technology Review has a good write-up of an Imperial study suggesting that we will need on-off isolation periods until we get a vaccine (18 months?), with it being “on” at least half the time: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/615370/coronavirus-pandemic-social-distancing-18-months/. Clearly, the government needs a communications strategy to get this idea across in a helpful way, without panic.
Excellent piece, Alastair.
Having been involved, in a small way, with crisis management when I was working, I can attest to the need to be concise and accurate with all communications: and indeed with thought processes.
This is excellent advice and easily adaptable to leaders of all organisations as well.
Excellent article Alastair, I hope that some of your advise is taken on board. I was very concerned and quite angry that your interview on BBC news this evening was cut short before you had even begun to get started.
I have forwarded your article to several members of my family including my niece Emma Mitchell whom I know you know very well.
What was the book on Auschwitz?
the volunteer, jack fairweather
sounds like the government read this and took your advice after yesterday’s press update