An excellent thread by James Sorene on government messaging during a pandemic such as Coronavirus, and learning from mistakes.
First published in March 2020.
I’m a former Deputy Director of Government communications and I ran the Department of Health press office during the swine flu pandemic. Some thoughts on the daily press conferences and the criticism the Government wasn’t getting its communications right.
The golden rule is to show that the Government is in control and being open, and transparent and available to answer questions.
It should have said two weeks ago that it would hold weekly or twice weekly press conferences, and more if necessary. The drip drip of articles, interviews, briefings to select journalists does not cut it. It might work with normal political stories but it is dangerous in a pandemic.
Putting a lot of Government ministers on the media looks sensible but it weakens the message. The Government should decide now who its top scientists and top ministers are, and only use them. The more people you use, the more confusion there will be.
During the 9 weeks of the initial swine flu pandemic, we had one bad weekend where the messaging went awry – that was the weekend the Chief Medical Officer stepped back and we allowed a Junior Minister to do weekend political programmes.
In summary – regular press conferences are great but Government needs to use the same experts as much as possible so the public develops a relationship of trust. Prime Minister and Ministers should say as little as possible about health risks and the science. That is hard for them but its vital.
A crucial part of communication in pandemics is to look ahead to the next big decision and explain the factors in making it. Being open about the dilemmas to win public trust. It is OK to talk about possible isolation for months for over 70s but this was handled badly. Mainly because we did not have a proper platform with the experts who went through the dilemmas and factors before making this decision – lessons need to be learnt from that.
But you would expect a big change in approach from today. In the swine flu pandemic when I heard the media say people were confused, it stung. It was the worst thing you could possibly hear. Yesterday’s criticism of Government communications will have been heard at the top.
Tweets posted on 16 March 2020 by @Jsorene.