What does the Government’s new messaging mean?

My social media feeds are full of discussions today about the UK Government’s latest COVID-19 messaging.

The original was: Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

Design iterations aside, the messaging has remained constant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to date. It has seeped into society so much that when recording a video message to their Grandparents recently, my seven-year-old daughter and five year-old twin sons recited it to them unprompted. Below you’ll find a video of my interview with them today to test the new messaging and check for understanding.

I liked the original messaging because it was clear, concise and the use of the word protect was particularly smart to evoke the emotional and practical response from UK citizens.


Today a new set of messaging has been released. It has prompted derision and discussion amongst the Comms and PR community, with many people claiming it doesn’t make sense and will lead to people doing the wrong thing.

So we’re now being encouraged to Stay alert. Control the virus and Save lives.

That’s the WHAT, but what’s missing is the HOW. How can we stay alert? What does that mean? How can we control the virus?

As Communication practitioners, what do we do with this? What does this mean for our employees? Let’s hope the additional information being released today provides the clarity we need to advise our people and leaders appropriately.

The first set was a clear top-down message from the Government. It wasn’t optional. The new messaging is the opposite, it devolves responsibility and requires citizens to interpret it and make their own choices. I believe this is the wrong approach and puts more people at risk.



What do Comms practitioners think?

Thank you to everyone who replied to my Tweets today asking for your views. I received one with a plea for anonymity which stated: “I fear this is deliberately vague so some people risk a second peak of infection.”

Here’s what Comms practitioners think:

It’s not gone down well with leaders of the United Kingdom’s nations either. The removal of the stay at home message has been highlighted by leaders…

The rule of three

Whenever I’m creating messaging, I usually use the rule of three, it’s a well documented technique regarding what we can remember and how the brain processes information. If you’ve studied neuroscience you’ll be aware of it.

There are many examples in recent history: 

  • Catch it, Bin it, Kill it (NHS campaign)
  • See it, Say it, Sorted (British Transport Police)
  • Stop, Look, Listen (Road Safety).

What unites all the statements above is they’re clear, actionable and straight to the point. They all focus on WHAT to do and HOW to do it.

When I saw the new messaging from the UK Government, my first thought was it’s too vague and open to interpretation. Yes there are three points, but they’re woolly.

I decided to put it to the test and remove my own bias by asking my children for their thoughts. I shared the latest messaging with them and asked them to tell me what they think it means. I regularly test messaging with my seven-year-old daughter. If she can understand it, I’m on the right track.

I’ve created this short video to capture my children’s views and interpretations of the new COVID-19 messaging from the Government in their own words:

My thoughts

The fact the messaging’s stark red border has been replaced by green immediately signals that everything is ok. Red is typically our danger colour, it makes us pay attention and heed warnings –  think stop signs, danger signs and do not enter signs. Green is more relaxed and typically related to advice and guidance rather than strict rules you need to pay immediate attention to. However, in an emergency, those signs are critical – think first aid points, fire exits, directions – they’re all green.

So we’ve moved to green here in the UK, should we view this as advice to have to hand and act on if needed rather than a strict requirement? It’s a mixed message. I think amber would be more appropriate, we need to remain cautious (although amber on yellow would obviously be a travesty design wise!).

What should it say instead?
Without knowing exactly what the Government is trying to communicate, it’s hard to have a robust answer. The lack of clarity and various ways it can be interpreted is spectacularly unhelpful.

As mentioned above, it now feels optional. The top-down approach has moved to devolved responsibility, where citizens are expected to know, understand and act on the information. But being open to interpretation results in a situation where it means different things to different people.

Reading comments online today, the main concerns seems to be the removal of the phrase Stay at home. However, Boris Johnson’s Twitter account @BorisJohnson has now shared a further definition and explanation which calls this out and says: “Stay at home as much as possible” – not a message you’d get from Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.

Here’s my take. It’s not perfect, but if you’ve read my All Things IC blog at any point in the past 11 years you’ll know I practice working out loud. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Mine is:

  • Stay apart
  • Act safely
  • Save lives.

Stay apart could also be seen as being open to interpretation, but whether you translate that to remaining at home or keeping two metres apart outdoors, both work in this context (and from Boris’ Tweet, is what they’re trying to communicate).

Act safely – I tested this with my children and it includes “wearing masks, washing your hands, not taking risks and being sensible.”

Save lives – I’ve kept this, it was in the Government’s first and second versions and needs to stay.

I also like Dr Ranj’s version…

What would yours be? As ever you’re welcome to comment below or find me on Twitter @AllthingsIC.

Further reading about COVID-19 via the All Things IC blog


Further reading on this topic in the Comms community

Thank you for stopping by


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 10 May 2020.



  1. […] I read Rachel Miller’s post about the government’s new three‑point messaging and listened to her brilliant interview with her children in which they described what they thought […]

  2. Dan Holden says:

    Hi Rachel,
    This was a great read and I love the fact you tested the messaging on your children. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the communications we can forget about our own bias.

  3. Thanks very much Dan.

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