The government’s “Stay Alert” slogan is working too hard

The reason why people don't understand what the new slogan means is that Downing Street is trying to communicate too much with a phrase. 

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The English government’s new slogan – stay alert, control the virus, save lives – is confusing. That’s not a Twitter meme, or about giving the government a hard time no matter what: it’s the plain truth, as shown by polling revealing that more than two-thirds of people don’t understand what it means, and that among the minority of people who insist they do understand what it means, they have wildly different interpretations of what it means. 

Why is the slogan so bad? Well, what good slogans tend to have in common is that they are communicating one thing. The problem is that the government wants the slogan to do at a minimum six things. They want to encourage people who have avoided going to the GP for fear either of catching coronavirus or of wasting the NHS’s resources at a crucial time to seek the medical help they need. They want people to take note of advances in our understanding of the disease that make it safer than once thought to be outside, be that in markets, garden centres or just parks and green spaces. They want to facilitate greater physical exercise and better mental health by easing guidelines on when you can be outside and what you can do while you’re there. They want to restart some of the economy’s normal functions by encouraging people who can’t work from home to return to work. They want to prepare the ground for various measures such as the reopening of schools and the tapering off of the furlough scheme for at least some parts of the economy. And on top of all that they want to encourage people to maintain a large degree of social distancing in their private lives.

In addition, different parts of the United Kingdom, including within England, require different messages. Far too many people in politics have become hung up on the need for a unified “four-nation” approach to exiting the lockdown. Northern Ireland shares a landmass and has an open border with another country and just as during the fight against BSE and foot-and-mouth, the public health challenges will always therefore have a different context. Returning to work is considerably more dangerous in London and Manchester than it is in many of England’s small towns.

The slogan is a mess because a single slogan is not a load-bearing object for so many messages of varying complexity, some of which ought to be contradicted in different parts of the UK for different reasons. The various improved suggestions being floated on Twitter by former Downing Street and other comms types all tend to be better than “Stay Alert” at any one of those aims, or for some parts of England – but tend to simply not apply to others. The only way to have a clearer message is to deprioritise some of those things the government is trying to communicate.

Complicating all that further is that the British government is internally divided over which of those multiple messages to prioritise. Should they be seeking to get the economy moving again as quickly as possible – should they be more focused on telling people it’s OK to see a GP? Or should the main aim be getting people back to work? Or perhaps they should be doing neither, but something else entirely?

That’s part of the story of the leaks that accompanied the run-up to the Prime Minister’s announcement. As often happens when a party is divided, people on the losing side of a divide are more happy to talk, as they often think – not entirely incorrectly – that a good way of making something happen is to tell people it will in advance of the decision. We see that with the lockdown – stories about its imminent easing may well have triggered easing of the lockdown in practice before last night’s announcement, but it plays out in policy debates all the time.

It’s a good reminder of Tony Blair’s rule that good communications come from good policy – not the other way round. The reason why communications in England are confused is that the government’s strategy is confused – they haven’t yet reached an internal consensus around what single message to prioritise, though it may not be possible to do so. A confusing or pointlessly generic slogan is the inevitable result unless unity can be reached.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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