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When good comms go bad

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Leanne Taylor, AHC, discusses why it is important to consider the impact of campaign communications, as things can take a very different turn if not thought through...

Ironically it can be hard to explain what it means to ‘work in comms’ or to accurately measure the impact of ‘good comms’ or ‘bad comms’. It’s a specialism that often goes under the radar existing in the background of people’s lives. It’s a specialism companies invest in but can be viewed as an area that is easy to dispense or to compromise on. The communications we produce thoughtfully and deliberately inform and encourage action, but they are rarely something most people would think were a matter of life or death.

The Government’s recent ‘Stay Home’ campaign in response to Covid-19 was largely accepted without question. As a piece of ‘good comms’, it had a clear message, used simple language, had a strong brand, was consistent across channels, repeated the message and felt like there was a well-timed strategy supporting it. As a campaign, it was a good example of ‘Keep it Simple’. As communications go, it was never likely to be recognised by the public as ‘good comms’ but they understood the message and took action and (largely) stayed at home.

And then came ‘Stay Alert’. Suddenly the general public were faced with the consequences of ‘bad comms’. As a piece of communication, it confused people, the brand became a parody, graphics were unclear, inconsistencies appeared across channels, and people lost faith that there was a strong plan in place. As a campaign, it spawned the sarcastic hashtag #CheersBoris.

In the days that followed the launch of ‘Stay Alert’, suddenly ‘comms’ and the quality of them were something that was critiqued far and wide. Government departments in communication were rumoured to have not been involved, experts in other fields admitted that they weren’t ‘comms experts’, people who ‘work in comms’ watched in pain from behind their hands. The general public took to social media to argue that the slogan was (arguably) wrong, the language was vague, the timing was wrong, the colours were confusing. Most critically, people were angry and upset as they tried to ascertain what action they needed to take to protect their own lives and the people they love.

As Covid changes the way we live our lives, the way we do business and the way our clients allocate budget it’s an interesting example to reflect upon. Comms in the early days of the ‘Covid crisis’ were often the first to go when budgets were cut and priorities were reassessed. Communications were an area where people could save money and time by ‘having a go’ themselves.

The government comms strategy for Covid-19 will no doubt become a future case study in communications, it will be debated for years to come and most importantly its impact will be felt for years to come. ‘Stay home’/‘Stay alert’ is an example of the importance of good comms and the consequences of bad comms.

Very often comms do just subtly inform on a background level but sometimes they encourage or discourage decisions which have a lifelong impact. In this instance, the success or failure of these comms really will be a matter of life and death. As Professor Susan Michie, of University College London, tweeted: “Lack of clarity can cost lives”.

Leanne Taylor, Lead Creative Consultant, at AHC