The EU’s debacle over its vaccine rollout serves as a strong reminder of just how much can go wrong when your message is muddled – and this applies to all organisations with a public profile, not just governments.
In this extreme case it’s literally a case of life or death, with thousands or possibly millions of people across the continent turning their backs on a proven life-saving vaccine, because of confusion and even disinformation sown by various political leaders. The most egregious examples include President Macron of France stating that the Astra Zeneca vaccine is ‘quasi-ineffective’ for the over-65’s, when the opposite is the case, and others raising concerns about potential blood clots after the vaccine’s use, whereas the incidence of clots is apparently higher among the general non-vaccinated population (and are usually easily treatable). Widely-used contraceptive pills are far more likely to cause clotting, and nobody is talking of banning these – and as one medical adviser put it, ‘if you want a blood clot, catch Covid’. By contrast, this is one of the areas the Brits got right – virtually all politicians across the spectrum, as well as well as scientific and medical advisers have been utterly consistent in promoting the jab, so the UK take-up has been much higher, with consequent benefit for citizens.
For other public sector organisations, as well as big business, the stakes are usually far more modest (although not when it comes to safety issues), but the same principle applies. In carrying out media training, I am constantly surprised by how often the answer you get on anything from new products to company strategy depends very much on who you talk to. This leaves journalists and the public confused, and opportunities missed. A good example comes from the financial sector, where competing asset management companies are marketing large numbers of rival funds to investment advisers and the general public. However, trying to discern what makes each fund different, what strategy and process potential investors are buying into, and what is the investment case in currently prevailing market conditions, can be extraordinarily difficult. Different spokespeople tell you different things. No wonder journalists, advisers and the investing public get confused and walk away.
So here’s a tip for anyone with a range of potential public issues to deal with, or a large ‘product range’ such as the aforementioned asset managers. Have a (very) short list of key bullet points about each one, enabling even those not directly involved to be able to convey the top-line messages in a consistent way. If there’s an over-arching top-line message that everyone in the organisation is made absolutely clear of (“go and get the jab!” or “more people around the world trust our accountancy software than any other”) then so much the better.
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