TRUSTED SOURCE: Looking to Michael Caine in Zulu to better communicate the coronavirus pandemic


At times of trouble, we return to what seems familiar and safe.

Bright twinkling lights of home port to a fisherman in peril at sea means safety.

Your own reassuring beacon can be as personal to you as your fingerprint.

“When I’m ill,” a mate once told me “I watch the Michael Caine film Zulu.

“I know what happens in the end. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and there’s enough to keep me from falling asleep.

“Besides, ‘Men of Harlech’ always gets me and that bit with the firing step is just ace.”

At peril at sea is the UK led by UK Government.  We are in as much peacetime danger as we were in 1918 when the last big Pandemic struck.

The three pillars of trust

It is a hard task to tell people there’s going to be deaths.

In 1918 at the time of the last pandemic, the reassuring voice of authority came from the man in the pulpit on Sunday morning, the family doctor and senior politicians.

In 2020, two of those three pillars of trust for the population are gone.

At the start of the 20th century, almost half the population could be found in church on Sunday. In 2018, it was six per cent.

In 2020, we are not waiting for the voice from the pulpit to tell us what to think. And just 14 per cent of us trust what a politician has to say. We are more likely to have our views influenced by your mate Yvonne on Facebook or barack-room medics like Piers Morgan.

There are some excellent communicators across UK Government and the public sector. I see and meet with them often. However, two decisions at the top of Government comms has proved the point that in a crisis some people return back to what is familiar. They returned to old school media management techniques. First, an unattributed briefing to Robert Peston on the idea 70-year-olds will be asked to stay in quarantine. And second, the Health Secretary writing behind the Daily Telegraph paywall about the next steps for coronavirus.

Both decisions stank.

News floated unchallenged by politicians without the surgical light of examination. This is fine if you’re trying to get the media to be interested in a new initiative. This blows up in your face if you are gaming people while dealing with life and death.

Both pieces of media management came over as trusted as a sales pitch from a time share salesman in a shiny suit.

Put the doctor up, stupid

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Earlier briefings had a politician and then a senior doctor or scientist to present the rationale and findings.

Doctors and nurses are trusted by more than 90 per cent of the population.

I would rather listen to the Chief Medical Officer explain to me the toughest step imaginable and why science says this is the best step rather than feel played by a politician using old school media management techniques.

I would also then rather have the same piece of advice reinforced over and over by my council, NHS Trust and senior doctor than a vacuum filled by Bill from Facebook whose shared a post claiming to come from Wuhan.

At the moment locally, I’m seeing the NHS and council online largely inactive. The council hasn’t posted on the subject for five days on Facebook and two days on Twitter. There is a post on their home page. The NHS Trust for the area posted to Facebook an hour ago.

The order not to create content away from the official one is being played out as ‘do nothing’ and that’s dangerously wrong.

Journalists have a role to play too

Times are hard for newspapers. I get that. I used to be a journalist. But the path out includes them, too. In an era where outrage = clicks and clicks = income it will be hard to steer clear of Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage. For the good of the country they need to.

Neither can add to this debate.

What we need to do

We are at sea and the wind is building.

There is a storm coming.

The reassurance I want to hear is from the Chief Medical Officer, epidemiologists and people who have build their career on how pandemics move.

In the film ‘Zulu’, the leaders were British Army officers Lt John Chard and Lt Gonville Bromhead at the Rorke’s Drift Trading Post. Both unknowns who rose to the task and communicated to their troops clearly what was needed.

In 2020, the two most effective soldiers are Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

Put the doctors up, please.

And then make sure their message is shared on every available platform by thousands of public sector communicators across thousands of platforms and then shared again by an army of hundreds of thousands of responsible citizens.

People don’t go to the official website any more than they go to church so take the message to them.

Give me someone in a suit that I’ve never heard of before because they were busy getting shit hot at epidemiology. Have the politician in the background to put their name to it all.

That’s all.

That’s the familiar and safe lights I want to see.

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