COVID-19 and Government Communication

Dr Alenka Jelen-Sanchez, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling

Image courtesy of 10 Downing Street (

Communications from government have been a daily feature of the coronavirus pandemic. Dr Alenka Jelen-Sanchez looks at some of the key considerations and compares the approaches taken by the UK and Scottish Governments.

Watch the lecture online or read the transcript below.

Hello. My name is Alenka Jelen-Sanchez and I’m Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at the University of Stirling.

In this lecture, I will talk about government communication and COVID-19 with a focus on a comparison between the UK and the Scottish Government.

During this global pandemic, several comparisons have been made between different governments and political leaders – some have been praised, others criticised. It has also been noted that female leaders have performed better than men. In the UK and Scotland, we have a similar tale of two stories with two very different leaders at the helm – Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland.

During this lecture, we will explore differences in communication and gender performativity between Scotland and the UK and some reasons why the Scottish Government has been receiving higher praises than its UK counterpart.

It is also relevant to add that this lecture focuses on the first three months of the crisis, as it was recorded on the 15th June 2020.

We will start this lecture with relevance and principles of government communication; outline the significance of gender and gender stereotypes; compare communication of the UK Government and the Scottish Government; zoom in on discourses, messages and gender performativity and conclude with thoughts on the importance of communication during COVID-19.

Relevance and principles of crisis communication  

During this pandemic, governments around the world were faced with a task to protect public health while introducing rules that were significantly restricting our freedoms and everyday life. However well the crisis is handled from an operational and policy perspective, it is how the government communicatesthat makes a difference in terms of public trust, compliance and support. Communication is, therefore, critical in saving people’s lives.

Government communication also sets discourse standards; in other words, how the media and the public talk, think and feel about the virus. A good example of this is a comparison of the current situation with war.

At the beginning of the pandemic, several governments, including the UK Government, adopted war discourse, which started spilling over into the media and everyday language.

While this discourse is appealing – it identifies the enemy, calls for a strategy to defeat it and provides justification for drastic policy decisions and individual sacrifices, Costanza Musu (2020) warns of dangers of this discourse.

We are not fighting a war. On an individual level, we should not be treating a disease like a battle or health workers as heroes, even less so as fallen heroes. On a societal level, survivors of the war in Bosnia remind us that in war, they had art, cinema, music, social gatherings to help them get through. They had human touch that has in current pandemic become toxic.

How governments communicate is important, because communication has power to influence public knowledge, attitudes and behaviour, especially in a time of crisis.

Crisis communication is one of the most critical aspects of modern communication. It has been widely researched in public relations and strategic communication. Although there are several models, theories and examples of best practice, these have not been reflected in government responses as strongly as they could have been.

When the crisis strikes, political leaders and their advisers do not have time to open the books and catch up on how to communicate in a crisis. Knowledge, understanding and skills need to be there beforehand and coronavirus really laid bare weaknesses in communication competencies of many governments.

As the 5Cs model shows, competence is the basis of crisis communication. On that we build confidence, but without arrogance and control of the messages. Communication during a crisis also needs to be clear and express concern and compassion.

With these criteria in mind, it has been noted that during this pandemic female leaders with empathic, emotionally intelligent style of communication have performed better than male leaders, who adopted a tough-talk stance, filled with war metaphors and hero-ism.

This is clearly suggested in the meme that circulated on the social media at the beginning of May. People of Scotland quickly added their own version with Nicola Sturgeon in the middle.

Female-style of leadership and communication has gone far in this crisis. However, it has also revealed how heavily political leadership relies on gender stereotypes. Women leaders are expected to be caring, mother figures; they need to show empathy and a maternal care for the population.

The UK Government and the Scottish Government: Discourses of war and care

This gender performativity has also played out on the political stage in the UK and Scotland, most visibly in government press conferences. Held almost daily since mid-March, these have become central government communication events, aimed at not just the media – as it was traditionally the case – but also at the general public.

The UK press conferences have been heavily male-dominated. Men are public voices of both political and scientific authority. This led Debbie Cameron to call this pandemic mandemic.

On the contrary, the Scottish press conferences are dominated by women with female expertise at the forefront. 

Let’s look at the numbers. To date, the UK conferences have been almost exclusively led by men with the exception of three, which were held by Home Secretary Priti Patel. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led 16 out of 87 conferences. The conference panels are notably male dominated with women representing just over 20 per cent of the speakers.

In Scotland, this gender picture is almost reversed. All the press conferences have been led by women; a vast majority of 57 by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and 8 by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. Women also dominate as speakers with almost 70 per cent representation.

War discourse is strongly present in the UK press conferences. Government ministers usually open them with “welcome to our briefing in the fight against Covid-19”. The government adopts a position of a wartime government that will do whatever it takes to defeat the enemy. The conferences have a notable Churchillian tone with references to patriotism, praise of heroes and Blitz spirit.

There is often talk about the battle plan, battlefield and frontline with references to the virus as an “invisible” or “deadly enemy”. The ministers talk about bravery and heroes and we also hear expressions of victims instead of patients. There is an emphasis on a united national effort against the coronavirus and how we are all on the same side in this war.

The Scottish Government is very much distancing itself from comparing the situation with a war. In her address on VE Day, Nicola Sturgeon emphasised that the challenge that the WWII generation “faced is very, very different to the one that we face today. We are not fighting a war.”

In Scottish Government’s communication, we will occasionally hear a mention of “fighting the virus” or “virus being in retreat”, but more often than not the government adopts discourse of care.

In this discourse, there is a strong emphasis on a sense of community, compassion, responsibility, solidarity and kindness. This is reflected in the message that Nicola Sturgeon issued when Scotland started easing the lockdown restrictions, stressing the importance of love, kindness and solidarity as our guiding principles.

During their press conferences, the Scottish Government consistently emphasises a debt of gratitude to key workers and people of Scotland and recognises personal sacrifices people are making to save lives. Care and empathy are strongly reflected in First Minister’s statements, as she addresses different segments of society, including children, elderly and shielded category. As articulated in one of her speeches: “As First Minister, I know the impact this has on all of you. And as a citizen, I miss my family too.” This builds a strong sense of “We are all in this together”.

However, this assumption that COVID-19 is a great equaliser, also embedded in the UK’s “we are all fighting on the same side in this war”, is problematic. If anything, COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated inequalities, from poverty, migration, domestic violence to gender, race and ageism. So yes, we are all in the same storm, but in very different boats.

There are also clear differences in how the two leaders express compassion. At the beginning of the crisis, Boris Johnson infamously said: “Many families will lose their loved ones before their time.” (Boris Johnson, 12 March 2020). His communication on death toll has become more compassionate since.

Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, has from the beginning expressed support and condolences to grieving families. She consistently emphasises that the numbers she is reporting are not just statistics. “They represent people, unique and irreplaceable individuals, whose loss will have left families shattered and grieving.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 4 June 2020)

There is another interesting difference between the two governments. In their daily briefings, the UK Government addresses and expresses gratitude to the British public or British people. With this, they systematically exclude non-British citizens and migrants living in the UK.

In Scotland, on the other hand, the Government is consistently addressing people of Scotland. This inclusive form of nationalism was at the frontline of the independence referendum debate in 2014 and remains central to the ethos in Scottish politics.

Last, but not least, let’s look at the messages. When England started easing the lockdown on the 10th May 2020, the UK Government changed the slogan from Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save lives to Stay alert – Control the virus – Save lives. If we unpack this slogan, it is suggesting that we should stay alert to a virus that is invisible and control it, even though the world-leading medical scientists and experts have still not managed to do that. The message left people confused and not clear about what they are expected to do. So the government clarified that staying alert means following the guidance as specified in the third graphic.

Adding confusion to UK government’s communication is the use of metaphors. Boris Johnson, for example, talked about how we are going to turn the tide, send the virus packing and nail the virus on the head.

These kind of metaphors are absent from Nicola Sturgeon’s statements, which have been commended for clarity and precision, creating an impression that she speaks to people like adults. The Scottish Government also refused to adopt the Stay alert message, as it implemented a slightly different lockdown exist strategy. The current message in phase 1 of exiting the lockdown Stay at home – Protect NHS Scotland – Save lives is only slightly different from its original version.  

Importance of government communication in COVID-19

So what difference does communication make? If we start with the media, the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon are being largely praised and considered as upstaging Boris Johnson.

YouGov polls show a similar picture. While the trust in the UK Government’s handling of COVID-19 has been falling and is currently at 40 per cent, three quarters of people in Scotland think the Scottish Government is handling the situation well.

This is, of course, not just due to communication, but communication does play quite a big part in this.

The assumption that governments will successfully tackle this public health crisis by appealing to civic duty, solidarity and respect rather than by cultivating the image of war and warriors (Musu, 2020), rings true in the context that we looked at.

While the Scottish Government has been commended for clarity, integrity and empathy in their communication, the UK Government has been criticised for incompetence, war metaphors and confusing messages.

It has also shown how female style of political leadership and communication represents a challenge to traditional masculinity in politics and opens interesting questions around gender and gender performativity.

The handling of COVID-19 has also shed a light on how important communication is and why it needs to be placed at the heart of any government and policy-making.

I would like to thank you for your attention and invite you to get in touch if you have any questions.

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