Can Tories only communicate well in elections?

Watching events in your own country from half a world and almost a decade away is disorienting.

Here in my adopted home of New Zealand, I understand the detail of the here and now, but much less context or nuance.  With the UK it is the opposite.

So I have resisted opining on the UK government’s Covid-19 response despite my deep involvement here through my polling on the subject.

But Boris Johnson’s national update on the Covid-19 lockdown was such a puzzling communications failure, and because I am witnessing first-hand what is, without doubt, global best practice on Covid-19 comms,  some comparisons occurred to me.

When he is on his game and not bluffing and blustering, I find Boris’ delivery and communications style distinctive, personal, entertaining and, mostly, effective.  I know many don’t, but it was a big part of his Brexit ‘win’ and his landslide election, even accounting for the worst opposition candidate in living memory. Last night was no different. In my opinion, he was animated and engaging, but with the right level of gravitas and even a little empathy.

And the script was polished and contained some lovely flourishes.  The ‘coming down the mountain is sometimes more dangerous’ metaphor was my favourite.

But the performer and the scriptwriter were badly let down.

Eight weeks into the crisis, he tried to put a communications structure around it.  The five Alert Level steps should have been launched at the outset.  They were here (though we only have four steps) and in Singapore.

If they had been, he would not have had to respond so injudiciously to the country’s very reasonable demand for a roadmap.  New Zealanders were told going into the crisis what our four-steps were, what disease state they corresponded to and what each meant in terms of restrictions.

In the very middle of the crisis, his communications team appear to have panicked and tried to implement the structure they have seen working elsewhere.  Which is the communications version of putting in the foundations at the same time as choosing the wallpaper.

And even with the benefit of some global best practice, they have cocked it up because the UK’s five Alert Levels are not tied to corresponding restrictions or disease states.

But it gets worse because he was obviously not let down by one communications dullard, but by a committee of them, all apparently competing to insert their own cockups into his broadcast.  To be fair, he managed to include them all in little more than 12 minutes!

five levels

Above are the UK’s five Alert Levels.  Other than ‘NHS overwhelmed’ at five and Covid-19 ‘no longer present’ at one, there is no detail on the virus progress at each level and no indication of what restrictions relate to that.  So the media has speculated and filled the gap.  Here’s the Guardian’s view and here is the Telegraph’s.  Take your pick!  Not exactly managing expectations.

Compare this to New Zealand’s four Alert Levels announced at the outset of the crisis. Each level is accompanied by a Risk Assessment (broadly the disease state) and the related range of measures or restrictions.

NZ alert-levels

To be fair, the government here has fudged the details of this a bit, but today we have are moving from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2 (with a few exceptions) and the journey is pretty close to the one we were promised seven weeks ago.  Here is a great piece on the New Zealand Covid-19 communications story.

Possibly in order to cover the lack of commitment to hard restrictions information, Boris’ crack PR team have decided to add some complexity by relating the already in-use and accepted ‘R’ number (the reproduction number or the rate at which the virus will spread) to the five Alert Levels.  Here is the graphic for that, oddly in a kind of speedometer form, which uses the same five colours as the Alert Level graphic, but only the one data point. R1 is between yellow and orange.  Clear?

R meter And all of this is part of the government’s three-step strategy Boris tells us.  But the three steps are not obviously related to the five Alert Levels and the colours in the graphic below are not the same and look as if they have been designed by a different eight-year-old. But here at least, we do see some graphic depictions of the restrictions/freedoms.


But Boris was not finished.  Not by a long way.  All of this he went on to tell us is part of the government’s five-point strategy, which at least uses the same clip art and Crayola pallet as the three-steps graphic.


And finally, for anybody not made dizzy by all this, there is a formula.


It is all at once both too complex and too simple.  That’s rare!

These are the slides your intern puts together when they are desperately trying to pretend they are working for McKinsey, not your communications agency.  These are the interns that don’t make it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the new tag line launched just yesterday that even the Daily Mail does not bother to defend.

I can’t think of many better (by which I mean worse) examples of communications by committee than this broadcast. Which is so strange for the Conservative party given they have such a great communications track record. Look at the Topham Guerin work social media work and the laser-sharp polling and strategy of Crosby Textor both used to great effect in recent elections and campaigns.  In various roles in the past, I have worked with a dozen Tory communicators who are better than this.

Something between the recently hired Lee Cain and the long term head of government communications Alex Aitken is very badly awry.  This is a car wreck of a broadcast, despite a very capable presenter and the Tory media ably trying to cover the gaps and make sense of it.


Much as I hate to admit, normally bad communications are far from a matter of life and death.  In the middle of a pandemic when confusion or loss of faith in the government’s policy can lead to a lack of compliance to health restrictions, it means more sickness and death, a longer lockdown and a slower economic recovery  So I find myself in the odd situation of hoping the Tories get their bloody act together.





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