I have waited for 24 hours to see what happened with the Covid-19 confusion around the local hotspot areas. As we wake this morning the guidance has been changed to minimising travel into and out of the eight areas. Grant Shapps had to face the questions on Radio 4 this morning and struggled to find the words to apologise for the situation even when confronted with people who had changed arrangements because of the guidance. I am not going to go through the reasons why this confusion was unhelpful, what matters to me now is what it means for the future.
In the radio interview they quoted an MP who said the guidance had left people struggling to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. If this is the case then it is important to start thinking about creating a tapestry of messages that will build to give people the complete picture. Communication continues to demonstrate how it is a critical part of any crisis response.
It may have been an oversight or a breakdown in communication but the confusion of the past 24 hours has the potential to damage confidence. People have been through a year of listening to messages, being told what to do about all aspects of their lives, and of attempting to do the right thing. Keeping people engaged with the messages when a crisis runs for a long period is always going to be a challenge. A lack of clarity is one way that you can switch people off. If they can’t understand it then why would they listen to it.
There is also the lack of transparency that threatens the honesty of the messaging. Putting the update on a website and not sharing it clearly with people is a short step to playing into the conspiracy theories. A crisis needs a regular flow of messaging, clear, open, honest and accessible to those who need it. This is about more than a Downing Street briefing and is about daily updates shared with key agencies.
Here it is worth mentioning the relationship between central government and local agencies. People are more likely to trust and listen to the messages that get shared locally. These are the agencies that provide key local services, that regularly share messages and that make information relevant to that area. An effective communication response to a crisis needs to prioritise stakeholder engagement and work with key partners. Throughout the past year there have been these occasions where a breakdown between central and local agencies has caused confusion and has sown seeds of mistrust.
Communicating with people cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be sat in the operations room providing strategic advice. It needs to be a strand of the response. It needs to be given resources, support and the recognition for what it can achieve. We have to take the learning and build something more efficient, effective and workable for the future.