Another lesson on the purpose of government communications – the Moonshot announcement was not meant for us…

In this Covid age bubbles have all sorts of new meanings. We are learning that smaller households can learn to live alongside other smaller households in a bubble. We can now meet for zoom-distanced drinks and occasionally – when the numbers are down – go for a distanced walk. Given how important bubbles are becoming to modern life we haves need to get on with our fellow bubble dwellers – so we all tend to agree.

This modern bubble is a smaller example of our broader life experiences where we tend to spend most of our time with people with whom we get on. Boris, Trump, Brexit, socialised medicine – I don’t have many zooms or distanced conversations with people who don’t broadly think as I do about the big issues of the day. This is partly because the nature of modern political argument has become so heated and vicious that disagreement exacts a high emotional price. It’s better to argue around the edges of issues rather than to get into the wounding nature of the big culture wars of the present day.

In the blogs and newspapers I read, and the podcasts to which I listen, creators and readers tend to share a similar world view. I suspect this also applies to the content of this blog. I am sure some of you strongly disagree with some aspects – but generally, on the big issues of the day, we probably huddle together.

On September 9th the Prime Minister announced that he was developing a ‘Moonshot’ approach to the test and trace process. He explained that this would expand the country’s daily Covid testing capacity from the current 200,000 to 10 million by January 2021 – with a milestone target of 2-4 million by December this year. This would be at a cost of £100 billion.

At the time, and still today, the actual, earthbound test and trace process was and is in a mess. The country was beginning to recognise that the scheme had not foreseen the increase in demand for testing that would result from children going back to school and students starting college and university.

One of the most interesting ‘tells’[1] that the Prime Minister uses is the word ‘fantastic’ in describing some future activities. The ‘tell’ is that he uses this word with BOTH its meanings. The first is as a synonym for ‘good’. This is a ‘fantastic’ scheme = this is a good scheme. The second meaning that he cannot help but ‘tell’ is that he is talking about his fantasy. Deconstruct the sentences with both meanings.  The Moonshot was fantastic.

I am interested in content so I immediately started to ask around about laboratory capacity and the numbers of testers necessary to reach 10 million tests a day. Probably, given a few more days, I would have developed a growth model and a trajectory. I was looking forward to writing a post or two about how very unlikely it was that this target would be hit. All sorts of jokes were already bubbling under (“it’s called a Moonshot because now you would have to go to the Moon to get tested – not just Inverness”…).  It all looked ridiculous – and in time everyone would see it was.

So why announce it??

The point of this current series of posts is to try and move away from concentrating on the content of government announcements and focus on the emotions that the announcements are meant to engender. My reaction (and perhaps yours) to the announcement was to make a deep dive into the content and try to calculate by how wide a margin he was going to miss the Moon. Or to consider the fact that given the technology did not exist, how quickly could it be not only be developed, but rolled out on a large scale.

My memo to self (and to you) is that this thinking is entirely missing the point. (It doesn’t stop me from doing it though!) What are important are the emotions attached to this announcement and how they are meant to connect with the public.

For some weeks now the public have become increasingly worried about the test and trace system. What felt abstract – an organisational/political issue – has become a concrete issue as more and more of us know someone whose child has had to stay home from school because the test they were offered was 200 miles away and impossible to reach.

The government needed the public to feel a different emotion about testing. The Moonshot  announcement tells of optimism in the future and in doing so attempts to bring that emotion front and centre in the public mind. It is linked to British exceptionalism. We, our one little country, will make it to the Moon first, before anyone else. That’s the sentiment needed to lift our spirits and divert us from our day to day fears – leaving us feeling that the Government has big plans for our country.

But, I hear you say, this emotional connection isn’t  working. I don’t feel uplifted and optimistic as a result of this announcement. I feel that this sort of thing makes us a laughing stock to other countries (and it does). So all this signification stuff that links announcements to emotion, so when the content is forgotten the emotion remains – doesn’t work.

Because you and I don’t feel that emotion.

But, dear reader, I fear none of this is aimed at you and me. We are, in fact,  irrelevant.

In historical terms this irrelevance of ours is unusual. For the last few decades announcements about developments in public health were aimed at people like us. Those shaping the announcement would have talked to us (and others like us) beforehand and would have eagerly awaited our response.

It does not work this way anymore and we have to get used to what it used to be like for others. We are not the object of all of this communication.

The emotions this announcement seeks to arouse are not designed to appeal to us. So far as the government is concerned they are talking only to between 40% and 50% of the country (In December 20019 A majority of 84 came with 43.6% of the vote). You and I are not, I suspect, part of that group

Inasmuch as we are being talked to at all it is as an attempt to persuade us to publicly attack the announcement as absurd. If we do we distance ourselves from the emotions and demonstrate – to the 40 -50% – just how out of touch we are. The announcement – and reaction to it – then covers three or four news cycles thereby boosting its emotional impact.

Apart from seeking our outraged response – none of it is about talking to us anymore.

[1] A ‘tell’ is a poker term when someone’s face always forms in a certain way when they are, for example, bluffing with a bad  hand. Politicians tend to use certain words as a ‘tell’ when they are uneasy. The Home Secretary always uses the word ‘obviously’ when she is saying something that she fears is opaque. This ‘tell’ indicates that it is always worth listening carefully to what she says is obvious because it almost certainly is not. So the ‘tell’ draws attention to the very thing that the politician (or player) is anxious about and ‘tells’ you want they are really doing.