Just before we all broke up for the Easter “break” Ramona Slusarczyk has been teaching me and my fellow Newcastle University students crisis communication and control. In her module, Strategies and Management in PR, we have been learning so many useful skills to use in our future public relations careers, but have also been combining the practical understanding with theory.
One of the theories we have looked at is Mike Seymour and Simon Moore’s (2000) snake metaphor which helps to distinguish crises into two types.
Cobra (the ‘sudden’ crisis) – A crisis that suddenly strikes an organisation, catching them off guard. In this crisis the element of surprise is an important aspect, a good example of this being something like sexual misconduct allegations against an employee (e.g. Nicolo Laurent, Riot Games).
Python (the slow-burning crisis) – This type can manifest itself as either a slow-burning crisis which only affects the organisation (e.g. 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal) or as a damaging series of issues against an industry (e.g. doping in professional sport). The important idea here is that in both scenarios the organisation is crushed slowly.
It is this latter crisis I want to look at here a bit further, in reference to the UK Government’s decision to set out a roadmap out of lockdown. I have a feeling that their decision to release this to the general public might come back to bite them… Sorry.
When parties are vying for election success they release manifesto’s and policies they want to enact if elected to office. If elected they then have a mandate they can follow. It is important that they state their intentions as to how they would govern, what areas they would prioritise and who they want to provide support to, but there is a problem.
In my previous political blog about the upcoming byelection in Hartlepool I talked about the results from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. Of the 4 major institutions, government’s and political parties were the least trusted. This is down to promises and the seeming lack of strength of parties to keep them. I cannot speak for elsewhere, but in the UK there is a very strong feeling that parties cannot be trusted and that any promises they make will fall away. I don’t myself actually believe this, as for instance a lot of economic promises made during elections will be enacted, primarily through budgets which are always voted on a hard three-line whip.
However, the problem is that people are selective and during campaigns specific policies become the focal points of the electorate. In PR these could be seen as hot issue publics (according to Grunig and Hunt), but from my political background I would also frame them as single issue publics. This is very prevalent in the UK and probably best seen in the 2019 election where Brexit was made a priority, and was the ultimate demise of the Labour Party who ironically seemed to fail to make any promise whatsoever.
All parties have made big promises and then failed to stand by them, whether that be: free university education (Liberal Democrats), not to hold an opportunistic snap general election (Conservatives), refusing future EU integration in the 2000’s (Labour). Heck political figures have even made promises and put them on a side of a bus. I’ve seen a big increase in military spending recently, but am still waiting for that £350 million a week to go into our NHS… I think we all may be waiting quite a while for that.
The failed promises stay with them for a long time. Look at the Lib Dems! Once king makers are now a third party still in a slow decline.
This is why I think the roadmap for getting out of this third lockdown, and eventually ending the Covid pandemic in this country, is so dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, this last Monday (29th March) I was so excited to be able to play and coach at my tennis club once again, and having that date to look forward to has been great. It puts a clarity on the government’s movements that at the beginning of this pandemic were somewhat lacking, but more importantly it provides hope. A light at the end of the tunnel.
This is precisely the problem. It has had success, such as producing a lead for the Conservatives over Labour in polling figures of around 7%. However, is this just a short-term victory? I can only speculate here, but I have a feeling it will only be a short-term success for the Tories, and could actually be the beginning of a slow and negative PR spiral.
If Boris Johnson’s administration can deliver on their promises, and all restrictions on the British public are lifted the day after my birthday (thanks Boris), so by the 21st June, then I can see it being a major success. It would be a promise around a hot issue that would actually be kept.
Conversely any “dither and delay” could have the complete opposite effect, and could be the beginning of a long and painful death of the Conservatives. Unfortunately the situation in Europe is not as stable as it is in the UK with cases rising quite rapidly and our proximity to Europe means we will be affected by the spike. With other selfish political moves (from both sides), such as the EU threating to ban Covid-19 vaccine exports to the UK, it will also mean that our supply and delivery chain will slow down. The longer the restrictions continue after the initial deadline of the UK’s roadmap the more damage it will do.
Could restrictions be lifted too early to avoid a political PR disaster?
Returning back to the snake metaphor, it feels like the Conservatives are currently the manifestation of the python. They have a considerable amount of power to control the potential crisis, but they have so much power that they may suffocate themselves accidently. There is a very real possibility that they may get tied up in all the loopholes they are trying to get through. It is no easy task and I don’t envy them at all, but the fact that the pandemic and spread of coronavirus has been so unpredictable makes me think that it wasn’t a good idea politically or PR to produce a timeline they will be held against.
It will be incredibly interesting to see if the hypothesis I’ve made here comes true, but also the actions of the government in the coming months. I, like so many others, hope that this is the last lockdown and the opening up of outdoor activities has made me even more hopeful. Boris Johnson did clarify that the dates aren’t fixed, but by adding a detailed timeline it has made something that isn’t actually a promise appear to be one. It leaves this final question:
Do political parties promise too much or offer too much hope when they cannot actually guarantee it? Are they just setting themselves up to fail?
To finish I just want to quickly talk about the vaccine. I hope everyone who reads the blog continues to stay safe and will get vaccinated, but I realise that the vaccine for a lot of people is a worry or a scary prospect. I see this at home because as someone from Leicester the vaccination rate is quite low compared to the rest of the country, especially among people from minority groups.
If you are nervous about it please read or talk to official sources. Below is a link to the NHS website where they have plenty of information on the vaccine, but you can also talk to your local GP who will give you strong and reliable information.