The effectiveness of public health messaging is usually measured in decades. Think smoking and drink driving. Now the government has to land the most important public health message in days. And it needs to stick.
Over the weekend we heard numerous reports of people doing the precise opposite of what they were told to do. Parks and open spaces in London – by all accounts – heaved with people enjoying the sunshine.
This was never going to be easy. I mean, it’s hard enough to convince a majority of your fellow citizens to vote for a political party – and that’s when you’ve got time.
Now, the government has to convince the entire nation to sacrifice their personal liberty for the greater good. If that’s not a communications challenge requiring detailed opinion research, I don’t know what is.
We don’t know what the government polling says, but I’ve been looking at the public polls out there and I’m seeing some interesting findings. Things are moving fast, but this data might give us some insight into why the message isn’t fully taking root – yet.
Perceptions of the Prime Minister’s handling of the crisis
There’s been a lot of criticism of Boris on social media and amongst some media commentators. Much of this is driven by partisan politics and isn’t reflective of the country at large. Both YouGov and Ipsos Mori report net approval ratings for the Prime Minister, the government and various Ministers.
A YouGov survey from 19th-20th March showed a net approval rating of +14% for the Prime Minister.
However, both polls also found that approval has tended to follow existing partisan lines. In short, if you voted Conservative in December, voted Leave in 2016, are older and live outside London you have confidence in his handling of the crisis. If you voted Labour, Remain, live in London and are younger you don’t.
However, this is not to dismiss those who don’t have confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis. We need everyone to follow the public health advice, regardless of their political allegiance or faith in the politicians of the day.
Some have argued there should be a Government of National Unity, or some kind of ‘national COBRA’ involving all sections of society. Whilst this is fanciful (and a massive distraction from the important work to be done) we do need to acknowledge that, for some sections of the population, there might be more trusted messengers out there.
This is an argument for all politicians to suspend party politics (as Sadiq Khan and, latterly, Nicola Sturgeon have shown) and get on board with the message. This should include former Labour Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as Corbyn and the Labour leadership candidates.
This is not about pushing the net approval ratings up – this is about ensuring that as large a number as possible are receptive to and act upon the message.
The problem of trust
Public data so far suggests that significant segments of the public simply don’t believe the government on this issue.
A YouGov survey from 12th-13th March shows a majority either not believing the government, or not sure. The question was: ‘Do you think the government are, or are not being honest with the public about coronavirus?’ Note that they ask about the government, not about Boris Johnson personally. This is very deliberate wording – we would expect to see a significantly different answer were it about individual politicians (and this would be the same for anyone, not just Boris).
Clearly a lot has happened since the fieldwork was done, but it does give us an insight into the communications challenge the government faces. It’s also not clear whether, given the question, this suggests people think the government are concealing the severity or coronavirus or are over-egging it.
Nevertheless, if significant numbers don’t trust the government, it matters who they trust instead and, related to that, where they are getting their information from.
Information spreads too
What I found most notable about the findings from the 12th-13th March YouGov survey was the question about where people get their information from about coronavirus. Although most seem to be getting their information from official channels, there could be over half who are getting it from non-official channels. 29% said they are getting information from ‘social media’ (which will include some official channels, of course) and 24% said ‘word of mouth.’
Again, things have been moving fast and these numbers will be changing all the time. But this gives a further insight into the challenge. If 24% of the population are relying on word of mouth there is clearly scope for, at best, information to be misinterpreted.
And this data doesn’t break down ethnicity or country of origin. There are likely to be communities whose native language isn’t English and who don’t consume mainstream media.
I have been slightly surprised not to see vast swathes of advertising space on TV and radio given over to government messaging from a variety of trusted voices with difference audiences. But perhaps they are saving this up for any future escalations.
There is more data out there and more will come through. I will keep an eye out for any new, interesting snippets as they relate to the perception of public health messaging and translating it into action.
Polling and messaging may seem like fair weather tools – but they are in fact key to mobilising as much of the population to…
… all together now…
Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.