Johnson, Churchill and Crisis Communications

My article on Johnson, Churchill and crisis communications was published in the New European yesterday. It was written and published before we knew the Prime Minister had contracted COVID-19, and I genuinely wish him a swift recovery. But that doesn’t invalidate what I wrote:

The UK Government’s coronavirus communications have been poor. Partly because of the apparent change of strategy – from the formation of ‘herd immunity’ at the risk of a large number of deaths to a stronger emphasis on social distancing and self-isolation. The initial strategy, heavily criticised and harder to explain, will unquestionably be the subject of Parliamentary and Public Inquiries in due course. Inquiries will also deal with the apparent delays in creating more ICU beds, ordering additional ventilators and protective equipment for front-line staff. For now, the priority is getting those problems sorted.

But the major problem has been the Prime Minister. The people taking key decisions at the centre of this unprecedented crisis are intelligent, hard-working and diligent, working under extreme pressure, at great pace and with facts and evidence that are being gathered in real-time. But the PM’s performance has not inspired confidence. Alastair Campbell, who knows a thing or two about crisis communications, published twenty recommendations for practical things the government should be doing. His key observation was the need for the Prime Minister to ‘narrate’ a strategy. Unlike his hero Churchill, Boris Johnson has failed in that. Even Monday’s address to the nation showed someone trying but failing to suppress his gung-ho bonhomie.

There are four key factors that can gleaned from the writings of Churchill’s contemporaries, people who served with him or watched him at close distance. They are

  • Clarity
  • Gravity
  • Preparation, and
  • Discipline

Clarity. Waffle won’t wash. Indeed, it confuses the message. Churchill could sometimes be prolix in his orations but he knew the importance of clarity and concision in the delivery of messages. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 1940, he wrote a minute to his War Cabinet headed ‘Brevity’.  It’s as relevant today as when it was written. ‘To do our work’, said Churchill, ‘we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.’ This was not a plea for recommendations without evidence – where needed, that should be given in an Appendix. The demand for brevity, to Churchill, wasn’t simply about the use of time. It was about getting clarity. This one-page memorandum ended ‘the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.’

Gravity. Churchill didn’t treat the British people as idiots, setting out the severest challenges with honesty. He also used humour wisely. Sir Ian Jacob, Military Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet, and later BBC Director-General, recalled ‘humour in debate was not precluded, provided it did not degenerate into levity.’ Churchill wouldn’t have offered ‘Operation Last-Gasp’ in a meeting or conference call as Johnson is alleged to have done with industrialists in discussions on ventilator manufacture. Churchill had strong views on the naming of key war-time operations, stressing that they should not be frivolous or boastful. He understood the dignity of state office. It wasn’t a game.

Preparation. Churchill was a ‘girly swot’. Jacob said ‘his passion for detail is well known’. What most impressed people about Churchill, Jacob recalled, ‘was the fury of his concentration’. The diaries of his Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Colville, are littered with references to his preparations for speeches. A frequent opponent, Aneurin Bevan, recorded that Churchill ‘prepared his work with care and polished and re-polished it.’ The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, who frequently clashed with Churchill, recalled in his diaries that he often had to help with Churchill’s speech preparations:

the whole Cabinet table had usually been littered with segments of the speech which had been returned by various people with remarks of criticisms. He worked at tremendous pressure on these occasions.

Discipline. Not all Churchill’s speeches worked. But in the midst of crisis, Churchill understood the importance of discipline for getting his message across. Bevan recalled that Churchill’s speeches ‘advanced along a broad sweeping front, making this point, then another, paragraph by paragraph, a majestic progress.’ Clement Attlee explained how Churchill provided the narrative for the war effort. ‘If somebody asked me what exactly Winston did to win the war, I would say “Talk about it”’.

Clarity, gravity, preparation, discipline. Not words yet associated with the current Prime Minister whose slap-dash extemporising has delivered mixed messages. Where Macron, Merkel, Sturgeon, Varadkar and even Rishi Sunak have been clear and controlled, Johnson has jabbered.

Churchill of course didn’t face 24-hour news or real-time social media. But he knew the importance of message discipline in a crisis. The Prime Minister should re-read his own book on Churchill, particularly this: ‘Churchill’s speeches were a triumph of effort, and preparation.’ From now on, he has to stay scripted.

 

 

Leighton Andrews is Professor of Public Leadership at Cardiff Business School, and a former Welsh Government Minister.

 

 

 

 

This is a time for honesty.

Coronavirus Curriculum Planning 2020-1

This is essentially me thinking aloud about the four post-grad modules I am scheduled to teach next academic year. Two weeks ago I said that if I was still here in the autumn – and I am planning to be:

Whatever happens, if I am here in the autumn, I will I know be teaching the social, political and economic consequences of coronavirus on at least two postgrad courses I lead.

In fact, I now think I will be teaching it on all four modules. All my teaching, aside from guest lectures, is in the October-January period, so I need to start some outline preparation. Here goes as I brain-dump some initial course thinking in a public value business school.

Government from the Inside – From the Minister’s Viewpoint (PLT435)

You can find a link to the module overview here. It is essentially an overview of the Ministerial life, from appointment to leaving office. It looks amongst other things at Appointment and the first 100 days, Ministers in Cabinet, as departmental leaders, in the Chamber and Committee, working with and against the Opposition, Ministers and the Media, pressure groups and ministers, evidence for ministerial policy-making, leaving ministerial office. It covers UK and devolved ministerial life.I am planning a book for Palgrave Macmillan based on the course which I have now taught for the last three years.

Students are assessed through an end-of-term essay. These are on topics they choose and are always interesting. Last year one student elected to look at Norman Fowler and the Aids Crisis, which has some parallels with today’s crisis. If I took a coronavirus lens I guess I would look through the course at how the virus has disrupted the marking of Boris Johnson’s 100 days in office; how COBR (A) has worked in co-ordination, including with the devolved administrations, how scrutiny of evidence has developed in Parliamentary committees, how pressure group and media criticism has influenced ministerial policy, and the role of daily press briefings in crises, the collation of evidence in an emerging crisis and the building of ministerial discursive capacity, Opposition input in the crisis, and maybe some futurism about ministerial reputations in the crisis and their likely scorecards after leaving office.

I am already collating materials, from press reports to parliamentary inquiries and government documents, which includes much of the advice that went to SAGE. (To be fair to the UK government, a lot of material has been published in respect of the evidence base and their assumptions). There is also a considerable amount of material on managing crises in the interviews with former ministers on the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series. No question then that coronavirus will feature on this module.

International Business Management (BST448)

This is one of the core modules on Cardiff Business School’s MSc. in International Management. I have been teaching this module for the last two years and it has had a significant ‘tech’ focus, which has enabled the exploration of themes around globalisation, based on my recent research. In postgrad terms it’s a large module with about 140 students, a very high proportion of them from China. Who knows how or if this will change next year? The COVID-19 outbreak has sparked all kinds of writing about the future of globalisation, networks, re-localisation, etc. The COVID-19 outbreak also lends itself to a straightforward introduction for management students to PESTLE analysis.

There are significant opportunities here obviously to look comparatively at governmental and political responses, business impacts in different sectors, the role of technology in surveillance of the disease (and obviously surveillance more generally), and how the disease may affect international business development, including global value chains. It may allow students to bring their own country by country observations to the forefront.

Think I will definitely be teaching COVID-19 and its impact on the the global economy this course, but it may require some re-writing.

Leading Policy and Delivery (BST652)

I was involved in co-developing our new part-time MSc in Public Leadership . This autumn I will be teaching the module about leading policy into delivery over three sessions. I guess that COVID-19 will become one of the cases that we will interrogate as it will be directly relevant to everyone’s immediate experience. Our students come from a variety of public service backgrounds.

Unlike the ministerial module above, the focus will be more about the impact on public service delivery. So I can see us covering its impact on the relationship between the making of policy and its implementation on the ground; thefeedback loops between frontline delivery and policy-making; collaboration between services,  both devolved and non-devolved; integration of third sector in delivery; what this means for target-setting, capacity- building, resilience planning, governance.

Much of this would have been discussed on the module in any case. But there is quite a lot to plan for here. And I think the agenda will expand as time goes by.

Strategic Planning and Innovation (BST680).

This year we began teaching a postgraduate Diploma in Healthcare  Planning in Wales. I am one of two academics teaching on the Strategic Planning and Innovation module. To a degree, our emphasis, as the NHS Wales Deputy Chief Executive, Simon Dean, said at Cardiff Business School in 2019, is that what matters most is the planning, not the plan. Though this was devised before the COVID-19 outbreak, we already had considered planning for unexpected emergencies and crises and ways in which governments did this in a variety of spheres, from terrorist outbreaks to a no-deal Brexit. COVID-19 forces consideration of previous planning exercises for pandemics.

This module from my perspective probably needs some adjustment but less overall than the others, as the key themes are there in outline, but need drawing out with reference to the current crisis, and the evidence materials published by the UK Government already mentioned above are directly relevant.

That was a brain-dump on behalf of my course planning. Now I need to allocate time for teaching preparation for each of these modules.