The Government always knew that keeping public opinion onside during the early days of a second spike would be hard.
These are times when public finances are under pressure, lockdown fatigue is setting in (particularly amongst the young), but when dangers to public health are still high. Ministers face criticism from all corners, whatever decisions it takes. Some of the popular media’s websites channel criticism towards the Government from entirely different directions on the same day. So what should Ministers do to keep public opinion onside?
I never write about clients’ work, unless expressly agreed and declared. My thoughts here are entirely derived from my own recent reading of the public mood. In any case, not only has it been a relative age since I ran groups for Government, but my agency has decided not to pursue opportunities for future work with the Cabinet Office. As those that understand qualitative research know, the work, while interesting, is ultimately extremely low-margin, all-consuming and a distraction from commercial work.
1. Forget the polls.
First things first – the Government needs to junk almost all the polling. Public opinion is in a state of total unreality and has been for many months. All the polls show the public back strict lockdown measures – just as they always have.
But voters are on morphine supplied by Ministers in the form of vast furlough payments and emergency support to businesses, tenants and the rest. As such, the public has no sense at all of the real state of the economy – and therefore no sense whatever of the trade-offs the Government is making between public health and public finances.
People will always favour tighter restrictions when they think there’s little direct risk to them. As it stands, few think their taxes will rise, their personal debt will increase or that their jobs are at risk. For most people, risk lies with others.
Ministers have created a vicious cycle of opinion: they’re artificially pumping up support for tight restrictions, then reading the polls telling them the public want tight restrictions, then further extending support. If the Government is going to help the country ultimately get back to normal, it’s going to have to break this cycle. Stop reading the polls for a bit.
2. Start being honest about risk and public choice.
While the nature of the conversation will necessarily be brutal and uncomfortable, the Government must start talking about the balanced risks of ongoing restrictions. It has to: the chances of the cavalry arriving with millions of vaccine shots before the money runs out look slim. It seems likely, at some point, that we’ll have to find a way to live with risk.
If Ministers don’t prepare the ground now, they’ll find the public in a state of hostile shock when all of a sudden the Government removes financial support. As part of this process, they’ve also got to start encouraging the public to start managing their own risk.
So far, only Rishi Sunak has been prepared to deliver, in flashes, this message. He should be unleashed to start telling the public some fundamental truths about the need to protect the economy, and in turn our public services and living standards. The public aren’t daft and they’ll come to accept this. But it’s a message that is going to take time to filter through; it needs to be delivered now.
3. Don’t misunderstand the character of the English.
There’s only one value the English hold dearer than fairness, and that’s family. While they want ludicrous violations of lockdown rules punished in the name of fairness, they’ll also do whatever it takes to protect their families and they believe utterly in the sanctity of the private home.
The Government has been dicing with political death in recent times. They’ve appeared to encourage snitching on other families, which will come back to haunt them in calmer times; they’ve left themselves open to putting, say, attending demos ahead of visiting relatives; and they will have made lifetime enemies of middle class parents of students in recent weeks.
Ministers should remember who the English are: law-abiding; fair-minded; (nuclear) family-focused; and ultimately liberal. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically badly. (And, whatever you do, don’t mess with the English Christmas).
4. Promote politicians, downgrade scientists.
PR Advice 101 is always the same: wheel out the independent experts that the public trust, and play down the role of politicians. And so we’ve seen nothing but Government scientists for months.
There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it has implied that the scientists are ultimately in control of the situation and that there are simple, empirical decisions which can and must be made. This isn’t true, and has given the public a false sense of security.
Secondly, most of the scientists are poor communicators. The media love the idea of the boring, trusted scientist that the public all love. But this isn’t reality. The scientists aren’t professional communicators and putting them in positions of public influence in this way is a mistake. The Government needs to show some balls and downgrade the scientists’ role as communicators, and take responsibility for what are essentially political decisions.
5. Use Rishi Sunak more, use businesspeople more.
Strategically speaking, communicating on the economy is now the most important comms challenge – because of the need to prepare people for balanced risk. People know as much as they ever will about the health risks and the need to socially distance, wash hands etc.
So there’s little gain now in having the scientists keep talking about the health risks. They won’t help keep the public onside if a million people join the dole queues. Instead, the Government needs to promote business voices who can both explain the rationale for Government action, and who can explain risk and reward in ways others can’t.
Ultimately, since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk at some point, we need businesspeople to explain in necessarily lurid terms the dangers of not doing so. We need to hear even more from Rishi Sunak and ideally a panel of businesspeople to amplify his warnings.
6. Drop the technical language.
This is such an obvious point, I’m reluctant to make it. However, one of the problems that has arisen from the public role of the scientists is the casual use of pointlessly technical language that ordinary people can’t possibly understand.
The use of the “R rate” in public communications is merely the most obvious example. Of course, when used enough, they take on the meaning they’re supposed to have. But as part of the shift to promote political voices, there’s got to be an onus on using the simplest language.
7. Internationalise the response.
One of the weird things about the global pandemic is that each country seems to be grappling with its own specific outbreak; it’s as if we all have our own national pandemics. It will be far easier to keep the public onside if politicians are seen to be actively talking and learning from one another.
And, no, this isn’t a Brexit thing; this seems true around the world. The public will be more open to change if they can see we are cooperating with the other countries and learning lessons from them.
Over the summer, all we heard was the possibility of tit-for-tat quarantine restrictions imposed on different countries’ tourists, as if this was all a zero sum game; this wasn’t given the attention it warranted: it was a real low point in the crisis. The Government would do well to work publicly with other governments at this point.