It’s not what it is, it’s what it looks like
Communication in the public sphere requires a clear, unequivocal message
which requires no ‘homework’ or decoding on behalf of the audience. If there are numerous caveats and ‘maybes’, the main thrust of what you’re saying gets lost.
The substance of the nurses pay deal may stack up – but no one’s had the time or the inclination to process it, preferring the 21st century ‘insta’ reaction of outrage. And this entire episode should drive Government focus for their campaigns in future: our inability to engage on more than a superficial level with many topics – given the disposable nature of media and its constant re-invention of new themes – should lead to a new approach to messaging in this space.
What has happened over the last few days has meant politicians on both sides have been poleaxed by the row over the increase. On one side, the Government offered 1% – perceived by most people as a paltry reward for the relentless commitment to getting us through COVID-19. On the other, a Labour opposition who needed to tread carefully or they could have been accused of fiscal irresponsibility by backing double digit percentage increases.
The RCN (Royal College of Nursing) called for 12.5%, a politically unacceptable but, they felt, economically realistic figure. They said it took into account previous years when there have been pay freezes. Those multi-year deals had delivered a pay rise of more than 12% for newly qualified nurses and increased junior doctors’ pay scales by 8.2%.
So, knowing that a 1% cross-the-board award would amplify dissatisfaction and lead to scores of negative headlines, why didn’t Ministers simply announce a proper pay review hinting at “real reward for our NHS frontline”?
In the same way as announcing an enquiry – and at best a public enquiry – helps take the sting out of an uncomfortable political situation, a review can neutralise public opprobrium by hinting at ‘jam tomorrow’. It’s a lesson Boris Johnson has now had to face up to.
For many, it seems obscene that last week Chancellor Rishi Sunak was splashing the cash to prop up many parts of the economy, but somehow ‘forget’ a group to whom the public feel nothing but pride. He found it easy to cascade a raft of lifelines for many hard-hit sectors – but seemed incapable of defining a special deal for NHS
The only time the Government got their messaging right during the entire pandemic was by hanging their hat on a raft of dates when the UK would return to normal – 12 April, 17 May, 21 June etc. The experience of the last year with the myriad of confusing tiers and lockdown expectations should have shown them that the world- weary media consumer needs it simple, stupid. And a 1% headline packs a great deal more punch than any nuance of the actual facts.