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Get ahead of the epidemic: why we need a pre-emptive & responsive strategy

by Carley Bowman

Filed under Coronavirus

This post is by Lucian J Hudson. He led government communications at the height of the Foot-and-Mouth crisis. He works with TTU to advise leaders on handling the scale of unthinkables like Covid-19.

The Government has repeatedly said it will take timely decisions. Now is the time to scale up, speed up and strike before the virus spreads even more.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Number 10 Downing Street
I led UK government communications at the height of the Foot-and-Mouth crisis in 2001. Then I oversaw the post-crisis rewriting of all Government communications plans to communicate risk to public. So this is my perspective.

The UK Government should now declare a step-change in our public health, economic and international strategy. Why? The statistics published indicate the UK’s increasing mortality rate relative to most other countries. The advice published last Friday by SAGE, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, argues that we need a lockdown policy that lasts a year.

This is until the UK has a vaccine or treatment that means fewer people need intensive care, alternating between periods of more and less strict social distancing measures.

Get ahead

From now on, the strategy should be:

  • Accept lockdown, and work through its consequences;
  • Contribute significantly to a global, coordinated response and recovery plan, including closing the financial markets before stimulating and sustaining the real economy is further impaired; and
  • Prepare all of the population for accepting that enforcement will be needed where cooperation proves inadequate. Safety, security and saving lives come first.

One aim, winning formula and exit strategy

Most crises only stop getting worse when there is a clear aim, winning formula and an exit strategy. Whatever debate on the alternatives, we all need to unite with a single-minded determination to overcome the challenge. Missing in the communications, because it is missing in the decision-making, is how we get ahead of the epidemic, get on top of it, and work towards its reduction and start planning for recovery.

In the meantime, we have no alternative but to support what is being asked of us, to contain, delay and at some point, mitigate the spread of the virus. What is not achieved through cooperation will be achieved through compulsion and enforcement. At some point, as well as a series of don’ts, we also need a set of do’s. We use what freedom we have to do the right thing, individually and collectively. Washing hands and keeping a safe physical distance is the start of a positive To Do list.

Good enough is enough

This is a bad time for perfectionists: in a crisis, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Leaders cannot eliminate risk - much as the pressure grows on them to do so. All of us will need to take responsibility for what on balance is good enough. This includes having to live with large doses of uncertainty. There will be many difficult trade-offs, and sometimes we will have to draw a line, and accept the consequences of a good enough, but not perfect solution.

In the past, vaccines have had to be near perfect. Will society be ready for a vaccine that is as good as possible? Communicating risk to the public will become increasing critical. I belong to a generation of public servants that devised and used the slogan, “Be alert, not alarmed”. The line between the two makes all the difference.

Last Thursday, many Londoners were gripped with the fear of an imminent lockdown. The trouble for any official communications is leaving answers ambiguous. “Not yet” or “We cannot rule out” might be honest, but conflicting interpretations through different channels, rather than one agreed response, will only spread confusion.

Spinoza said of nature that it abhors a vacuum. Much can also be said about the public and information vacuums. Where there is a vacuum, misinformation and misinterpretation will take over. It is not enough to anticipate questions. We also need to anticipate the weight that others will give to the assurances given. Clear, credible, coordinated, consistent responses are therefore crucial. The Government in this new phase has no option but to simplify and streamline communications further. We have an invisible killer in our midst; keep our distance; or risk lives, our own and others’ lives.

Good leadership, good followership

Good leadership is essential in a crisis, but so is good followership. The organisations I lead or support on communications and business strategy are working on three time-horizons:

  • the here-and-now
  • the prospect that things will get worse before they get better, and
  • in many cases, what of their organisation remains of continued relevance or will require significant change

Many strategic choices do not need to be made, and cannot be made, now - but leaders will be considering options before long.

We have some way to go, in our heads and in our hearts, before we are all equipped to ride out this storm. Being more proactive will help in being more responsive, especially if ideas and suggestions are harnessed and everybody feels that they are contributing to solutions. But leaders will also need to be decisive, and live with tough and often unpopular choices.

Positive message, grounded in realism

This crisis is unlike any I have experienced before, but the main requirements for planning and delivering effective communication are the same. The context is very different. Yes, it will end, but we do not know when; yes, it will have a trajectory, but we do not know yet its twists and turns; and yes, there will be heroes, villains and those who are just trying to do the right thing in the circumstances. Unlike many other crises in my lifetime, most of us will be for some time worse off, many, if we survive, will be more knowledgeable and possibly even more resilient.

Most of the UK is still giving the Government and its impressive advisers the benefit of the doubt over its public health and economic strategy. There will be setbacks and disappointments, but we will also learn and adapt. The Government has repeatedly said that it will take timely decisions. The window of opportunity is closing.

Now is the time to scale up, speed up and strike before the virus spreads even more. We need a positive message, grounded in realism. The biggest prize will be if we come to embrace not only a “new normal” but a compassionate revolution – more about that in future blogs.

Lucian J Hudson is a board chair, strategic communications consultant and executive coach. He is a past director of communications of Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Defra and Ministry of Justice, leading communications crisis response and recovery. His work under Labour and Coalition Governments involved reviewing communications across No.10 and other Government departments, and devolved administrations.

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