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What happens to the people who don't hear the voices?
Written by Malcolm Roberton, founding partner
3 April 2020
A week or so ago (on a Zoom call, inevitably) a small group of friends gathered just to talk. I don’t think we’re alone in feeling that relationships matter more than ever right now.
When we’d moved beyond the ritualistic piss-take of each other’s backdrops and the general bewilderment about the world changing dramatically by the hour, we turned the more practical parts of our minds to what is fast becoming the single biggest obstacle to effectively stemming the spread of the coronavirus: communication.
Now, none of us are behavioural psychologists, far from it, but in this case it does not take a scientist – whether a rocket specialist or otherwise – to work out what is happening here.
For the last generation or so, the nature of politics here and abroad has changed and not necessarily for the better. I think it is fair to say that those at the sharp end of political discourse have played fast and loose with the facts from time to time. And inequality in society remains a massive problem.
Trust has been eroded, not only in politics, but right across the societal spectrum, including business, the media, sport, charities, churches and so on. There is hardly an institution that has not been touched by what used to pass for a crisis.
So now, when it’s literally a matter of life and death and we really need people to listen, believe, and then behave in the prescribed way, is it really any surprise that they are not listening? Or if they are, that they don’t immediately and faithfully obey messengers who appear to exist in a vastly different and unrecognisable world?
That is not to say there are not some great examples of leadership and excellent communication. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is one of the inspiring leaders of the effort to tackle this invisible threat. Jason Leitch, the NHS’s national clinical director, talks in clear, simple and reassuring terms that many of us can relate to and appreciate.
But there is no denying that some people are simply not hearing what is being said, because their attention is focused not on politicians or doctors but on the sporting, musical, television, or internet celebrities they watch and listen to every other day.
During this crisis, young people are perhaps even more immersed in the worlds of Instagram or Snapchat than they were before, distracting themselves from the weird goings on with games, music or comedy. WhatsApp is busier and wilder than ever.
Males aged between 16 and 25 are apparently the hardest audience to reach with public health messages. Are they more likely to pay attention to KSI or Michael Gove? To Dele Alli or Matt Hancock? Who’s speaking to the elderly and the significant black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who helped build our multi-cultural foundations?
So, on that Zoom call, an idea was born; a really simple one. It is to take the important messages coming from government and recast them for delivery by those who really do influence people, in the national interest. Authentic and trusted voices conveying potentially life-saving messages to their loyal followers.
One of our number is Gordon Smart, a whirlwind of ideas, radio DJ, ex-tabloid journalist and one of the best-connected men in the country. Another is Michael Stewart, a footballer once and now a shrinking violet of the TV and radio studios. There are other brilliant people too, and we are especially grateful for the generous support of Lord Haughey.
Gordon has worked round the clock to assemble an eclectic group of brilliant creative minds – and his doctor father – on a WhatsApp group that is lively at all times of the day and night.
Hilarious ideas collide with important and profound pieces of medical research from around the world, but there is a unity of purpose about this group. We want to do everything we can to better influence people to change the way they live, to stop this virus killing more people than it will if there’s not a dramatic change in the way we talk to people. Since we started, we’ve recorded more than a million views.
This week, Greg McHugh’s comedic creation Gary Tank Commander launched what we’ve called the Restless Natives (some people will remember the audacity of the clown and the wolfman) #stayathome series with this short and powerful speech. In it, he speaks of the invisible enemy that is Covid-19 and asks: “have you ever tried to have a fight with somebody that isnae there? It’s really difficult.”
Some of the politicians leading this charge might reflect on a similar challenge – that of having a conversation with somebody who isnae listening. That’s not just difficult, it’s impossible.