Even before this pandemic struck, Boris Johnson saw his Prime Ministerial style as that of the Churchillian hero, the archetypal war leader – strong, fierce, bred for power. And now he has his ‘war’.
With a fierce battle to be fought against this ‘invisible mugger’, his messaging brings us vivid wartime images, evoking a blitz spirit and a ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude. Add to that the nightly images of the British Army distributing food packages and staffing giant Nightingale hospitals, and you can see why the opposition are starting to talk in hushed tones of the 2024 General Election as a possible 1945 moment – with a resurgent Labour Party sweeping to victory.
Compared with that famous Churchillian rhetoric and the instructive outputs of the wartime Ministry of Information, history will undoubtedly judge this Government as standing on the shoulders of giants and falling woefully short.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To quote Churchill himself “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
This pandemic has a long story to play out yet. Boris Johnson’s statement today might just mark the end of the beginning. As we launch into the next phase of this new normal, what lessons could he learn from that great generation he so idolises?
As the freshest of communications students could tell you, clarity is all-important when trying to deliver mass communications. Time and time again, the Government have failed on this most basic of tests, including on it’s latest effort as evidence is already showing.
And now, we’ve ditched the ‘stay home’ message to instead ask the public to ‘stay alert’. But if you need a two-page explainer for your slogan, something has gone wrong.
It’s a strapline so bad, the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already said they won’t be following suit.
Control the virus.
It just isn’t clear for too many people, what we are being asked to do.
Contrast this with the catchy, clear and concise calls to action issued during the Second World War, which stand the test of time in a way that ‘stay alert’ simply won’t be recalled in decades to come.
Loose lips sink ships.
Clear, straightforward asks that prepare the public for an equally invisible infiltrator. The clarity both sets out what action is needed, and inspires confidence that the situation is within your control.
Don’t ignore the visuals
The Government argue the British public can deal with nuance. They cite, as an example, that most famous of wartime posters ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
Simple, bold words, set on a red backdrop designed to radiate passion, resolve and power, it seemingly sums up what many consider to be the British character – either a determined resolve in the face of adversity or a sheer bloody-mindedness depending on your viewpoint. And that crown. A serious message from the very top.
It’s not exactly crystal clear on its call to action – perhaps the reason it wasn’t used extensively during the war period – but still, there’s something in it.
Keep buggering on.
We can do this.
An important message at a tough time.
Compare this with the latest effort from Johnson et al. A shift from the red and yellow of danger and warning to this new, altogether mellower colour scheme with an implicit call to ‘go’ in the switch from red to green (not helped by the Government’s midweek briefings about the impending easing of the restrictions to our daily lives). Add to that the psychological impact of green as the colour most often associated with balance and harmony while yellow shows happiness and positivity.
When you’re attempting to get a day’s work done, deadlines breathing down your neck while trying to home-school the kids, do your days feel harmonious?
So the general public could be forgiven for thinking the time has come to add a little more mellow positivity into their daily lives. Go on, go out, just stay alert. So are we supposed to be back at work, or not?
Honesty and Leadership
We are living through incredibly difficult and dangerous times. Sacrifices will be needed by those of us who have the comfort of staying home, to keep those on our front lines, and the most vulnerable in society safe.
The public are not idiots; they never were. They understand this, and they are waiting for those with access to the latest information to let them know what they can do to help.
Those who answered the calls of the wartime effort reflected with pride over the following decades about the roles they played – come into the factories, urged the Government, join the Women’s Land Army, Dig for Victory. Unambiguous messages pumped out by the state to ensure everyone understood the asks made of them and how they could help.
Celebrating 75 years since VE Day, it’s incredible to think that, with modern technology and expertise we haven’t been able to match the devastating efficiency of a simple poster that reads:
Now that’s what I call clarity.
Where do we go from here?
So how could Boris Johnson repair the damage done of the last week – filled as it has been with talk of a “Monday of Freedom” that we now know isn’t coming, restore faith that the Government does have a grip, and make sure people continue to stay safe?
We’ve set out examples of the kind of clear, memorable and explicit slogans that have been deployed in the past. Instead of abandoning their flagship message to the public, the Government could have updated it as they have in New Zealand, with a new phrase:
Stay the Course
Stay at home
Protect the Country
They haven’t done that, and what’s followed is a day of confusion and frustration from schools, businesses and medical staff who are all clear – we don’t know what to do for the best. Whatever the Government decides to do next, it is clear that they have to do better.