UK Government communications has come a long way during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen a press conference hosted by Special Advisers for the first time, the appointment of a White House-style Press Secretary, and even the government on TikTok.
But it won’t be the Rule of Six we remember – something conceived only partway into the pandemic. It’s the evolution of the rhetorical rule of three, or triadic structure, that will have a longer lasting resonance. But has it worked?
The rule of three is natural territory for the Johnson/Cummings/Cain communications machine. Keeping it simple, keeping it broad, keeping it brief. Think ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Build Back Better’. These aren’t just soundbites, but summations of policy. Umbrella mantras that define the Government. A constant reminder that less means more.
Let’s review the three COVID slogans for example.
Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives: the original. Memorable not just because it was the first, but because it worked best. It was a clear instruction and people liked that it framed the NHS as almost-sacred. Most of all, people were emotively compelled to support it. It was so early in the pandemic that the messaging united people.
Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives: the middle child. Few of us knew what “Stay Alert” really meant, or how to “control” COVID. If anything, this was more of an inward-looking message reminding the Government how to act, not the public. But it still retained an emotional appeal.
Hands, Face, Space: the simplest and where we’re at currently. The rule of three honed down from three statements to three words that each provide a different instruction. In true small-c conservative fashion, it gives people the freedom to determine their own responsibility. In theory, this campaign should have worked best.
And yet, has Hands, Face, Space succeeded or has it failed? The infection curve is rising again (though I acknowledge that could be down to better rates of testing), we have a patchwork of varying levels of regional lockdown, and another round of economic support measures to prop up the country.
This all suggests No.10’s struggle to communicate the changing situation with the tightening and loosening of freedoms. We’re a long way from when the slogan was coined in July, yet we’re still following Hands, Face, Space. And, as we move further into the pandemic’s next stage, the messaging fails to consider ethos.
Compare the situation with New Zealand. It appears to have mastered consistency, again, with the rule of three. New Zealand started with Unite Against COVID, moving to Unite for Recovery, and returning to its original messaging as the virus worsened. Yes the slogan changed, but crucially, it has continued to revolve around the concept of ‘Unite’. People got it. There are lots of factors that feed New Zealand’s successful handling of COVID, but this may well be one of them.
The end of the pandemic isn’t in sight and round two of national lockdown could be just around the corner. It’s most likely we’ll see another incarnation of the rule of three – the question is, what? Could we return to Stay at Home?
No.10 might consider rowing back on the rule of three to combine the simplicity of its latest messaging with the understanding and support of its original instruction, both underpinned by a consideration for the pandemic as an emotional issue. And, before it’s too late – to have some consistency.