The Coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but what do you do if you're the people responsible for keeping everyone calm in this moment of crisis? It's not an easy job, but there are tried and tested methods for communicating in a crisis. Sadly, the British government failed to follow them.
What does good crisis communication look like?
Research shows that the organisations best at crisis communication are those where the consequences of failure are extreme – think airlines and nuclear power stations.
Behaviours like risk awareness, acknowledging uncertainty and admitting mistakes are all embedded within the cultures of these companies. Their communications, which academics describe as 'high reliability communications', therefore tend to be fact-based, honest and authentic – all attributes that build trust when it's most needed.
These organisations react rapidly to early warning signs of a problem, listen to the people who know the most about the issue and investigate failures so they can appreciate the complexity of the problem, while learning from any errors.
People leading these organisations actively seek out bad news, listen to frontline staff and acknowledge when things have gone wrong.
What did the British Government do?
To answer this question, Professor Karen Sanders from St Mary's University, London analysed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's televised statements, news briefings and responses in parliament from January 2020 to June 2020 (a period when England's excess death figures were the highest in Europe). It's an exhaustive analysis, from which I've extracted a few key findings.
Early in the pandemic, when the World Health Organisation had declared a global health emergency and parts of Italy went into lockdown, the Prime Minister treated Covid-19 as a foreign problem. He ignored the early warning signs, encouraging business as usual.
By the beginning of March, when the UK experienced its first confirmed death from Covid-19, Johnson said the country was "extremely well-prepared" and that health workers had "all the kit that they need for us to get through". He presented an air of complacency, despite the obvious danger.
Johnson's statements were later debunked by news reports of health and care workers deprived of appropriate personal protective equipment who caught Covid-19 and died. This suggests the Prime Minister wasn't listening to frontline staff or that he ignored any bad news they shared.
When England went into lockdown later that month, messaging continued to underestimate the severity of the situation. As Johnson made bold statements like, "common sense will prevail" and, "we can send the virus packing in 12 weeks", scientists, civil servants and the media all raised concerns about the way the Government was handling the pandemic.
Despite clear failings, no-one in government owned up to any errors. When the son of a doctor who had died from Covid-19 asked the Health Minister to acknowledge that there had been mistakes in handling the virus, there was no apology. When the Home Secretary was asked to apologise for lack of personal protective equipment she replied, "I'm sorry if people feel there have been failings", putting the admission of error on the public, not the government.
In June, the leader of the opposition highlighted the UK's number of excess deaths (then standing at 63,000) and asked Boris Johnson to look back at what had happened in order to learn useful lessons, the Prime Minister responded by bullishly talking about how the country had come together to "get the epidemic under control". Of course, as the UK emerges from its latest lockdown almost a year later, we now know the spread of the virus was far from being controlled then.
Overall, it's clear the British government ignored the early warning signs that good crisis communicators would have picked up on, steered away from bad news (such as the UK's lack of personal protective equipment) and didn't listen to frontline staff. Along with a consistent air of complacency and an inability to acknowledge or learn from its errors, these behaviours are all at odds with high reliability communication practices.
As Professor Sanders puts it, Johnson’s early communications showed, "at best, an unawareness of the situation and, at worse, a willingness to provide misleading reassurance to the British public". Neither is appropriate during a crisis, when clarity and candour are key.
Anna Faherty is an author for accountingcpd. To see her courses, click here.