Why nation’s Covid-19 message fails its people

It’s surely no coincidence that two of the governments having most difficulty bringing Covid-19 infections under control are governments with disastrous communications strategies.

Both the UK and the US governments were slow off the mark, and both struggled to find a message that resonated with citizens.

After an initial period of denial, the US government issued confusing messages where the advice of scientists was often contradicted by the president.

The UK government began badly by having to do a rapid U-turn over the ‘herd strategy’ of allowing the virus to run its course. Then it pinned its hopes on a simple ‘Stay Home’ message.

Now the UK government has abandoned the ‘Stay Home’ message in favour of ‘Stay Alert’, a move that has prompted questions and ridicule throughout the country and round the world.

For any messaging to work, it has to be simple, unambiguous and actionable.

‘Stay Home’ ticked all three boxes.

‘Stay Alert’ is certainly simple, but it is neither unambiguous nor actionable. What does it mean? And what action are people expected to take that will keep them or their loved ones safe?

At a time when the population is seeking clear guidance, they are given an empty slogan that fits into Noam Chomsky’s definition of propaganda, right up there with other phrases that politicians trot out from time to time like Hope and Change, Stronger Together or Support our Troops.

Chomsky, a philosopher and social critic, wrote: “That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.”

‘Stay Alert’ sounds right but means nothing. Stay alert for what? Where? And if your ‘alert’ warning is triggered, what do you do?

Messaging fails if it ambiguous, or if people see it as pointless. ‘Stay Alert’ fails disastrously on both counts.

Slogans may have a short-term benefit at election time.

At a time when people are fearful for their lives, their jobs and their children’s futures, they deserve better.