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Communicating in a crisis puts trust in Government to the ultimate test

Source: PSE April/May 20

Nadine Smith – Centre for Public Impact.

Even in the best of times, trust in government, both local and national, hangs on a knife edge. Throughout this Covid-19 crisis, trust will matter more than ever, as the government asks us to place our faith in them in a very big way - more so than any time since World War Two. Not just for a day, or a week, but for months and years to come.

The Civil Service and public services in the UK, in my very biased opinion, are among the best in the world at handling crisis situations. Dedicated and talented people are working 24-7 to support the country, even putting their own lives at risk. However, in times like this, it isn’t enough to just be able to handle a crisis. Leaders need to show a complicated set of skills and behaviours - empathy, the ability to communicate a clear plan, being in command, while bringing people with them and sharing information without causing mass panic. Ensuring citizens’ trust in government is vital to save lives, and clarity in communications could not be more important - get that right and the rest will be easier.

Crisis communications is not just communicating there is a crisis and action to stem it. It requires effective relationships right across the system. Soon enough the burden of information to the public and businesses falls to local authorities and the front-line. They need to feel supported, informed and prepared to help as soon as possible. Bringing local governments and public services into discussions early in a crisis isn’t always the first thought but will better prepare central government for required response.

The public needs to see that central government has a strategy that crosses counties and borders for each and every phase of a crisis so that a sense of fairness is felt - some may wonder, is London getting all the help over others? A Cabinet of regional representatives would help give a sense of togetherness and coordination.

Communicating to earn trust

Successfully communicating in a crisis depends on everyone feeling in it together - that will mean everyone understanding which phase of crisis they are in and how to prepare for the next phase; how and why to act on the messages being provided; how to give feedback and find information about what is and isn’t known.  In an escalating scenario such as the current Coronavirus crisis, I believe there are four phases of communication that can help any government or organisation communicate clearly across the system:

  1. Inform- At this point the threat is not yet inevitable - the public needs clarity about the facts and to know government is preparing early, however low the threat or however little is known. They need to know what might trigger the next phase and what that might look like. Government must look and be ready, and speak calmly and confidently to prepare the nation. Support and advice lines will need to be set-up for the public, prepared for all possible questions, in anticipation for the forthcoming phases.
  1. Advise - This phase requires public and private sector cooperation. If mishandled, the next phase will become harder. At this stage, trust is not necessarily impacted but the threat is imminent and all decisions will be questioned. In this phase, citizens are provided with practical advice (in this case, handwashing, catching sneezes and working from home). Advice can be ridiculed and ignored if the threat and preparations for the next phases are not made clear. 
  1. Urge - At this stage communications must intensify before compulsory action is taken during the  fourth and final compel phase.  This escalation is necessary because compelling people to act differently, quickly, is a big ask of a free democratic society and the time for the message  to work and sink in may be longer than desired.

The Prime Minister should lead all communications on the coordinated response of government nationally, with a small team of trusted and professional government appointed experts as support. This avoids mixed messages and confusion created by semi-official sources. City mayors, local authorities and devolved administrations will need to feel confident about their roles too. It is important that empathy and authenticity are displayed by all levels of government towards those who will be hardest hit, for example those on zero hours contracts and the self employed. The Prime Minister will need to be well briefed on the public mood and the situation on the ground, visiting those on the front-line, if safe to do so, not just speaking from what looks like a place of privilege. Any issues that the government is facing, and the plan to overcome them, should be outlined each day through broadcasted, non-exclusive, briefings.


  1. Compel - The last resort for a free country. Many will still want to ignore what they are being told, as seen recently in many countries. Therefore, government may have to break down what is and is not allowed to a granular level and factor non-compliance into any planning, possibly forcing closures of public spaces and imposing fines. The private sector will be expected to ease pressure on the vulnerable to pay bills. If not, people will expect government to ask them to. Communication should be continuous, even if repetitive, and action must always be explained. At this stage, trust in government will be needed more than ever and the legitimacy of government will be judged by its ability to support those most hard hit and how it maintains morale.

The long game

The way central and local government communicate and operate day to day with the public will be tested even further over the coming weeks. People won’t care who delivers what support, just that it is done well and that mental and physical health is seen as more important than economic health. Lift the compel stage too soon, people will say health is not a priority, too late and it will be seen to be an infringement of personal liberty.

Emotions are high at a time when government needs to keep a level head and compassionate heart through every stage so that people can work together to fight, recover and rebuild the country. Crisis teaches us so much, including what needs to be done in normal times to strengthen trust and understanding of one another so we can be ready for the next shock. Hopefully when this is over, we don’t go back to business as usual but remember that building relationships matters all the time.

Nadine was Chief Press Officer and Ministerial Spokesperson in the Cabinet Office UK and a civil servant for 17 years.


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