UK Media and Government Clash over Coronavirus Coverage

Media outlets across the world are working out how to cover the COVID-19 outbreak, and they’re learning on the job. Where is the line between accuracy and hype, between reporting the current facts on the ground and waiting for further details or testing? And where is the line between factually reporting government decisions and taking the risk of deteriorating the confidence of citizens looking to their government for action and answers?

These questions are playing out in real time in London, UK, as even media outlets who are typically sympathetic to the ruling government have been strongly criticizing leaders’ decisions in recent days. Headlines have criticized a perceived “confusion” and “lack of clarity” from government messaging, while others are screaming for a better, faster plan to roll out virus testing.

Further complicating the tenuous relationship is the recent change in venue for communication. Where daily reports were, until recently, made in person, now reporters are getting them over video chat. While the technology is decent for communication, the audio can get choppy when various people want to ask questions at once, and it’s difficult to interrupt, challenge, or ask follow up questions. And, with Boris Johnson now undergoing treatment for the virus, the narratives have only gotten pricklier. Formerly supportive journalists have described the current communications as “pathetic” and a “complete waste of time.”

In the meantime, other members of the media are still demanding further clarity and consensus from government officials, lamenting “answers without questions.”

So, what can this scenario teach us about PR communication in the time of COVID-19?  Plenty, actually.

First and foremost, do not allow changes in how messages are getting out to increase message confusion. When venues or mediums for communication shift, the nature of the message delivery needs to shift to accommodate these changes, and more time should be dedicated to establishing and ensuring clarity of message.

Secondly, understand that people don’t like and will resist change. This may seem basic, but many brands, personalities, and entities are not practicing this “common sense,” leading to frustration for their audiences. Any kind of change to any routine can cause upset, distraction, and distance. Communicators must adjust by leaning in, offering concessions and education to minimize frustration, not just continuing business as usual.

Thirdly, accept that everyone is under additional stress, pressure, and worry. We are living through something unprecedented, and that has everyone on edge. Add to this baseline the frustration of quarantine and the worry that comes with waiting, wondering, and not getting clear answers, and people are much less receptive to messages, because of all those negative emotions. Effective communicators will account for this in their PR, shifting or revamping their approach in a way that is aware of the current situation without making everything about that. People need a break. They need something positive and authentic that is clearly communicated, whether it’s coming from the government, the media, or their favorite consumer brands.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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