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Outdated government messaging undermined Covid response, says former No 10 comms chief

Outdated government messaging undermined Covid response, says former No 10 comms chief
‘New slide please’: Chris Whitty’s famous graphs made it onto screens with moments to spare

Outdated communications skills at the heart of government were exposed by the Covidpandemic to the extent that the famous slides displayed at Downing Street press conferences were often completed only minutes before being broadcast on live TV, Boris Johnson’s former media chief has revealed.

Lee Cain said that failings in the government’s communications strategy at the outset of the crisis resulted in the public receiving mixed messages at a critical time.

And he said that a hub of comms staff set up in the Cabinet Office to oversee official information campaigns as infections soared and the country was plunged into lockdown was a “failure” because of inexperienced staff, unclear lines of responsibility, inconsistent policy and endemic leaks.

In a report for the Institute for Government, the former Downing Street director of communications – brought into No 10 by Boris Johnson after working with him on the Vote Leave campaign – called for the centralisation of official comms operation, a cull of hundreds of Whitehall press officers and a shift away from print newspapers towards TV, video clips and social media.

Cain also called for the revival of proposals for regular televised press conferences from the new TV studio in 9 Downing Street, ditched by Mr Johnson shortly after the comms chief and his ally Dominic Cummings quit last November. He said that the prime minister himself should host the briefings, rather than journalist Allegra Stratton, whose recruitment to be the TV face of the government was behind Mr Cain’s departure last year.

Former Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain

But his analysis was challenged by IFG programme director Alex Thomas, who said that structural changes to government comms teams “won’t repair the damage that a lack of honesty and transparency from leaders has done to public trust”.

Successive governments have fallen “a long way from the gold standard of integrity and transparency needed to underpin trust”, and the Johnson administration of which Mr Cain formed part was “particularly guilty”, said Mr Thomas.

He pointed to examples of untrustworthy government messaging including the misleading claims that the prime minister’s Brexit deal would not result in a customs border in the Irish Sea and a £100m advertising campaign devoted to the “fiction” that the UK would leave the EU on 31 October 2019 despite parliament having passed a law to prevent it.

“Confidence in government messaging depends on being able to distinguish political spin from factual information,” said Mr Thomas. “Journalists dispute official statements not because press officers lack confidence or status, but because too often information is incomplete, wrong or left uncorrected when errors are exposed. Even the best government communications team cannot obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership.”

The phrase “next slide please” intoned by Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance became a national catchphrase, immortalised on mugs and in internet memes, but Mr Cain’s report revealed that the graphs and visualisations which the government’s scientific advisers relied on to get their message across to the public were often deliver only by the skin of the comms team’s teeth.

“The centre had no data-visualisation capability in the early days of the pandemic,” said Mr Cain.

“Put starkly, there was nobody with the ability to create slides for the daily press conference – and even when a system was designed people struggled with the skills required, and slides were often sent only moments before press conferences were due to begin.

“This is not the fault of the individual press officers. The failures reflect the culture that has been created over the past decade, which has allowed basic modern news skills to become an afterthought.”

At a time when the delivery of precise, accurate and trustworthy information was vital to prevent deaths, the shortcomings of the government’s communications operation became apparent, he said.

“While there is much for the government to be proud of during these periods – such as the success of the ‘Stay Home’ campaign – the strains of the system became clear as the government came under increasing pressure,” said Mr Cain.

“The first Covid campaigns were poor, the ‘hub’ system – a team of comms professionals based in the Cabinet Office to assist in the crisis – was a failure due to inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility, policy development was inconsistent and leaking endemic.

“This resulted in the public receiving mixed messages at a critical time, damaging the government’s Covid response.”

The creation of the Cabinet Office hub was a standard Whitehall procedure in emergencies, but was exposed as a “layer of unnecessary bureaucracy” which largely duplicated the work of No 10’s own press office, he said.

The report described the hub operation as “a purely bureaucratic exercise to provide the perception of ‘grip’ (which) in reality performed poorly due to an opaque remit, weak leadership structure and inexperienced or poorly skilled team”.

But Mr Cain said that communications failures during the pandemic were not the fault of individual professionals, but of the system they were working in.

“Those who worked in No.10 during the height of the pandemic are some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside. I remain incredibly grateful for their expertise and support during such a challenging period. The system as it currently operates, however, is failing those individuals.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “These claims are misleading – throughout the pandemic we have set out clear, targeted and effective communications to help the public protect themselves, directly preventing millions of infections and saving thousands of lives.

“The Covid hub is delivering the biggest public information campaign since the Second World War, reaching an estimated 95 per cent of adults on average 17 times per week at the peak, using every means possible including social media, influencers, radio, TV and widespread digital marketing.

“GCS (Goverment Communication Service) is internationally recognised as a world leader in public communications, demonstrated by our work across the globe in over 25 countries.”