Coronavirus Boris Johnson UK Government

In defence of the 'stay alert, control the virus, save lives' messaging


By Dan Cullen-Shute, Worldwide CEO

May 11, 2020 | 7 min read

The UK government's new 'stay alert, control the virus, save lives' messaging has attracted criticism from many communications commentators. But Dan Cullen-Schute, founder and chief executive of Creature, thinks the slogan does the job.

Stay Alert

In defence of the 'stay alert, control the virus, save lives' messaging

So, this is weird. Having been called ‘Breitbarty’ and a ‘Tory apologist’ on twitter yesterday (Sunday 10 May), I now feel like I’m defending the Tories, which is not a position I’m accustomed to taking.

Thankfully, of course, I’m not defending them in the slightest. It’s perfectly possible to think that Boris Johnson and his gang have fucked this up royally, to be genuinely bemused by elements of his speech last night (although, at the risk of getting Twitter’s back up again, a lot of it was perfectly clear, even if you don’t like what he was saying), and still think that ‘Stay Alert’ is about as good - and clear - a message as you were going to get from a comms point of view.

To take the criticisms in turn:

“It’s not as clear as ‘Stay Home’.”

Well, no. But the process to easing the restraints of the lockdown isn’t as straightforward as the process to enforce it. ‘Stay Home’ worked (from a comms point of view - more on that, later) because it was a very simple and direct instruction to do a very simple and direct thing. Exiting lockdown is not going to be simple, or direct.

“Why are they dropping ‘Stay Home’ in the first place, when it’s working so well?”

Well, putting to one side the fact that most of the people tweeting this had been tweeting videos of street parties made up of people off their tits on Vera Lynn doing vaguely socially-distanced war-congas barely 24 hours prior, there was a lot to suggest that ‘Stay Home’ was starting to be quite damaging. It’s not the ‘done thing’ to focus on anything other than Covid-19 at the moment, but it’s estimated that 20,000 cancer patients in the UK have died since lockdown started because they didn’t go to hospital, because they wanted to ‘protect the NHS’. Incidences of domestic violence and suicide are through the roof. 20m people lost their jobs in the US in April. A quarter of working Brits are on furlough. Covid-19 is an awful thing, and we definitely haven’t fully got hold of it yet – but the country can’t stay at home and hide from it forever. The fact that I’m fucked if I know what that process looks like is, given the complete and utter lack of any skeletons in my closet, pretty much the only reason I haven’t gone into politics. Ahem.

“Why didn’t they go with ‘Stay Apart’?”

Well, I have a suspicion that telling a load of people who are missing their loved-ones to ‘stay apart’ probably wouldn’t have gone down that well - but, more importantly, social distancing isn’t the core message of Phase 2. ‘Stay Apart’ is an answer, with some inherent challenges, to a different brief. So not really that helpful here.

“How can I be alert to an invisible virus?”

The virus is on people, Steve. It doesn’t spread itself.

“The Tories are all bastards, and I hate them.”

Sure, fair enough, kinda with you, but that isn’t really the point. I mean, it’s quite an important point, and here’s hoping our political system can stop making them feel like the only viable choice at some point soon - but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Yesterday morning, I was moved to tweet my vague support for the government’s new three-pronged slogan (the slogan, mind - not the approach, or the strategy, or the voting records of the cabinet members) when I saw a high-profile investigative journalist, for whom I have previously had an inordinate amount of respect, describe it as ‘disinformation’. Not ‘bad’. Or ‘vague’. Or even ‘shit’. But ‘disinformation’ which is a fairly astonishing claim for anyone to make - let alone a journalist who’s spent her recent career writing brilliantly about that very thing. Not least when - and here we go again - I actually think ‘Stay Alert’ is pretty good, however Twitter’s gag-merchants may feel.

We’re about to be told that we can – and need to – go out into the world. It’s going to be a very different world when we get out there, full of dangers seen and unseen, and we’re going to (wait for it) need to be alert to that. We can’t get complacent, and start having street parties. We need to stay alert. We can’t assume that because we’re allowed to exercise as much as we like that we can bash into people as we do.

We need to stay alert. That alertness is going to take a lot of different forms, but that’s kind of the point: where one behaviour got us through lockdown, multiple will get us out of it, and any line has to speak to that. Is it the best line anyone has ever written? Probably not. Does it manage to wrap up a ton of potential behaviours by telling you to be conscious of everything you do, and of everyone else, all of the time? Yeah, I reckon so. Is it the hardest and most important brief any comms professional has ever worked on? Hard to argue against that. And, in perhaps the most important test of any piece of public information advertising, do I think it will stick in people’s minds, and change the way they behave? D’you know what, I really do.

I’d give it less than a week before the hilarious memes on Twitter are replaced by people saying, ‘Oops, stay alert!’ as they skip off the pavement to maintain that still important 2-meter gap.

So yeah. Stay home if you can. Stay safe. Stay 2 meters away from people. Stay the course when it comes to asking Johnson to be coherent and make sense at press conferences. And, most of all, stay alert.

It’s tough out there.

Coronavirus Boris Johnson UK Government

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