My eyes are peeled. I’m scanning the horizon. I check behind. And to the sides. Everyone I see will be scrutinised from head to foot, until I am satisfied they offer no threat. Every vehicle will be checked. Every house I pass will be noted and its details recoded. Nothing goes unnoticed. I am a coiled spring.
I am alert. So alert. I am positively tingling with alertness. Alert is my new middle name. Beyond alert. I’m more alert than Alert Ali McAlert, winner of last year’s ‘Mr. Alert’ competition.
I must be safe from the COVID-19 virus right?
If you didn’t know (because either you’ve been living in a cave, or somewhere outside Britain) this is the British Government’s campaign to keep the public safe from corona virus.
Stay Alert (what?) Control the Virus (er, how?) Save lives (but, who, where, how, che?)
My main question is this: Is this the worst piece of public policy communication in history?
Seems like a no-brainer to me. It’s the biggest stinker ever.
Why do I say that? (I don’t hear you ask)
Well for a start it makes no sense. Staying alert will make no difference whatsoever to anything relating to the virus. Or anything else, except I’ll be exhausted rather quickly. Is alertness somehow relevant? Am I at more at risk while sleeping than I am when fully ‘on my guard’? I think not.
Controlling the virus is not something I know how to do, nor something it’s in my power to do so instructing me to do it leaves me floundering.
And saving lives, while undoubtedly a good thing, is not really in my remit – I don’t think I’m being asked to find someone in danger and rescue them, so what exactly is it I’m being urged to do?
Alice Bennett, a senior lecturer in contemporary literature, put it better than me, on Twitter:
“It’s a fantasy that we can ‘control the virus’, but we can’t actually control our attention either. ‘Stay Alert’ is the ‘Never Forget’ of public safety messaging: actionless, objectless, infinitely expansive”
Inevitably the authors of the campaign have felt compelled to defend it:
“The truth is that people really understand the message, people understand what ‘Stay Alert’ means,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program .
In fact, polling by YouGov, on the Monday following its launch, suggested only 30 percent of people knew what “Stay Alert” means — and even Tory MPs privately expressed dismay at the botched messaging before the key document was finally published at lunchtime on Monday.
Apparently, the original intention was that the five letters making up ALERT would form an acronym for five actions people could take to prevent the spread of the disease. But according to Politico, the graphics for the new campaign were leaked to the Sunday Telegraph, the weekend before, leading to what is known in the trade as a ‘botched launch’. And no acronym was forthcoming.
No wonder the campaign has been met with a mixture of derision and confusion.
I couldn’t help take a quick peek at what some experts in Government communications thought about it. A couple of senior staffers at the Central Office of Information (The Government’s centre of excellence for public communications, until it was broken up a few years ago) summarised their thoughts as follows (no names, no pack-drill):
“I wonder what was the thought process that went into the new slogan: BE ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES. This slogan is meaningless and confusing.”
“It’s a box-ticking exercise that clearly doesn’t give a shit about whether it actually changes behaviour or helps people.”
So far so utterly damning. But there’s another side to this. Because, if there’s one area where the current British Government is generally sure-footed, it’s mass communications made simple. The Brexit campaign was a triumph of persuasion, where the case to be made was logically er flimsy at best. And the last general election saw the Conservative Party wipe the floor with their opponents, despite a fairly iffy record in government. All of this was achieved with a single-minded approach to communications based on a religious adherence to polling and feedback from focus groups. It has been a thoroughly professional job. They gave every impression of knowing what they were doing. Until now.
So what went wrong?
Stay alert for further bulletins…….