Jersey or Guernsey: Who Won the Covid Comms Battle?
About the author
Chris Rayner prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.
‘What are you waiting for, Chief Minister?’ read the headline in the Jersey Evening Post on Wednesday 25 March 2020. In an unusual move, Jersey’s only daily newspaper decided to print its leader piece on the front page. It called on Jersey’s political leader to order a lockdown, hold daily briefings, provide more information and asked why Jersey’s approach was different to its near neighbours.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, governments around the world found themselves desperately trying to make sense of the speed at which the virus was spreading. They also had some pressing decisions to make, such as when to close borders, should schools shut and whether people should be told to work from home. They were also working out what messages they needed to be giving to their populations and how.
In the Channel Islands, which are closer to mainland Europe than Dover, the news of the spread of the virus across Italy was alarming. Towards the end of February parents began to worry about their children on school half term skiing trips, while others, stranded in Lanzarote, became virtual prisoners in their hotel rooms.
After the first recorded cases, the calls to shut the borders grew louder, along with those clamouring for the schools to close. As the most senior politicians, backed by their health officials, faced the media and the public, Guernsey acted first going into full lockdown five days ahead of Jersey.
It was a decisive move that seemed to signal which of the two islands – neither of which is part of the UK and have their own governments and judicial systems – had got it right.
But was that purely down to how they managed their public relations, and did it mean Guernsey’s response at the start of the crisis was better than Jersey’s?
Comms rights and wrongs
Ethos, Pathos and Logos, the three foundations of communication set out by Aristotle thousands of years ago, have been analysed in thousands of pages of public relations textbooks.
While the Chief Minister in Jersey, Senator John le Fondré, faced hostility from the island’s only daily newspaper, across the water, the Guernsey Press headline on 25 March gently stated as they recorded their first confirmed case, ‘Guernsey is in Lockdown’.
The critical JEP headline reflected what many felt about the leadership of the Chief Minister, Senator le Fondré. To many watching the live press conferences on Facebook and expressing their dismay in the chat, he was a poor communicator who lacked the charisma needed to lead his community during a time of crisis. His younger looking counterpart in Guernsey, Deputy Gavin St Pier, looked and sounded credible, and had acted swiftly as the first cases arrived.
Ethos, characterised by the effectiveness of the speaker to get his or her message across, seemed to be strong in Guernsey but absent in Jersey.
While neither man lacked integrity, Gavin St Pier and his team spoke more fluently, made connections with the audience and helped to convince them they knew what they were talking about.
Contrast that with John le Fondré who seemed to stumble over his lines and gave the impression he was out of his depth. The often hilariously wrong live text subtitles were mocked on social media and even in articles in the traditional media. Jersey’s government was in danger of losing the argument.
An appeal to logic and reason
For those charged with getting the message right during a global health emergency, clarity, consistency and credibility need to be their watchwords. But what happens if your messaging is clear, but the team delivering it get it wrong?
In an article on the UK government’s comms failure over Covid-19, PR Week highlighted how easy it was for the two million inhabitants of Perth in Australia to go into a snap 5-day lockdown following one case thanks to clear messages. Yet confusion reigned in the UK in January over when the Border Quarantine Scheme would be announced because Matt Hancock and 10 Downing Street seemed to contradict each other.
In Guernsey, the audience listened and got on with it. There was a catchy hashtag, #GuernseyTogether. In Jersey, the audience listened, questioned it and then eventually got on with it.
Simply appealing to reason and logic became difficult in Jersey but was easier in Guernsey because the speakers were better at explaining how they intended to flatten the curve and seemed to share a common ground with their audience. The basis of the scientific message being put over by the health professionals in Jersey may have been sound, but the public demanded even more openness and speedier updates on case numbers.
Fear is the Key
No matter how hard it seemed, the message givers could at least get some help from the last of Aristotle’s rules of communication – Pathos.
An emotional connection with your audience is easier when there are obvious negative consequences, for example, if numbers continue to go up – the health care system collapses, and people die unnecessarily.
Deputy Gavin St Pier wrote an open letter to all islanders in Guernsey early in the crisis as he began to bring in measures to restrict freedoms and close sectors of the economy down. He sought to reassure them about why the measures were necessary, explaining what all the figures meant and warned about misleading ‘facts’ on social media. He also urged people to smile and support each other, drawing on positive as well as negative emotional appeals.
Jersey’s Senator Le Fondré published his letter the following day, paying for a whole page in the news section of the JEP, rather than having it published among the readers’ letters. The tone seemed stilted and less warm, listing what was being done.
Although the message from both was that the only way out of this was to stick to the expert health advice on social distancing, hand washing and working from home, it was being received differently in each island.
How to Persuade
Further analysis of those early days of the pandemic can be viewed through another model of communication that Ronald Smith describes in his book, Strategic Planning for Public Relations. Information, persuasion and dialogue fall into the themes identified by the ancient Greeks.
Information is simply how information is passed from the source to the receiver. In this case from the government to the public. And dialogue allows a two-way conversation that aims to enhance understanding by all parties. Perhaps not an overt aim here, but one that should be an aspiration for any good leader so that consensus can be built, and conflict avoided at a critical time.
More complex is persuasion. Looking at how Smith’s analysis of persuasion worked during the pandemic will require us to examine how the ‘Three C’s model’ – Credibility, Charisma and Control – applied to Jersey and Guernsey.
Let us start with Credibility and Jersey’s Senator John le Fondré, a long serving politician who had been in opposition to the Council of Ministers for most of his career. Jersey’s parliamentary system is similar to Guernsey’s and is mainly made up of independent politicians without party affiliations. Senator Le Fondré had beaten the previous Chief Minister in a vote among politicians for the top job after doing a deal with what was then, Jersey’s only political party. Although honest, he was not seen by many as a competent leader with the expertise and status to run a government. And yet here he was, thrust centre stage at a time when the island most needed a strong leader.
In contrast, Guernsey’s Chief Minister, Deputy Gavin St Pier, seemed calm and authoritative, able to easily share the platform with Dr Nichola Brink, the Director of Public Health.
Another politician held to be honest, he displayed the competence and a status that helped him to come across as an effective communicator.
The Charisma imbalance between the two islands was obvious. Guernsey held press conferences more often, and those delivering them did so sitting down, rather than standing behind a lectern.
Deputy St Pier was younger than his Jersey counterpart. He had gone on the record about being the victim of sexual assault and had spoken up about mental health issues within his family. He did not come across as a remote figure and islanders were prepared to listen to his ‘Trust Us, We’ve Got This’ message.
In contrast, Senator Le Fondré didn’t seem at ease in front of the camera especially when teamed up with the equally grey Health Minister, Deputy Richard Renouf. They did not make a great double act and were memorably described as ‘bumbling idiots’ by a senior Guernsey politician. The description stuck and even the hugely respected Dr Ivan Muscat, the Deputy Medical Officer of Health, who led the health briefings, couldn’t reverse the poor image presented by Jersey.
In terms of Control, Jersey’s press conferences suffered from technical issues, subtitles that were often hilarious and at other times baffling. Senator Le Fondré looked uncomfortable and lacked the authority needed to command people’s attention and respect even if the words being used were the right ones.
Deputy St Pier was able to give many of the same facts calmly and with authority and his medical team lead by Dr Brink, who became a local celebrity, seemed to be controlling the situation, reacting in a measured way as the crisis unfolded.
It would seem the halo effect as described by Ronald Smith was very much with Gavin St Pier and not with John le Fondré who suffered from a bumpier reception from the media and the public.
Who’s Got This?
Writing in The Dynamics of Persuasion, Richard Perloff chose authority, credibility and attractiveness as his three elements to aid communication.
Although politicians and credibility rarely go hand in hand, Perloff argued that people will listen if it means avoiding punishment, such as a fine, or disapproval. The attractiveness of the way Guernsey presented its message undoubtedly helped the authorities persuade the people of Guernsey to trust them to make decisions on their behalf, even if it meant, as Deputy St Pier wrote, that by curtailing freedoms some businesses ‘may never reopen.’
Deputy St Pier further enhanced his standing by making himself accessible on social media, something his opposite number made a point of saying he was not doing. It illustrated another lesson from Perloff about public relations which was that those that accept the rough and tumble, as he describes it, are more likely to do well if they are prepared to speak to or tweet to those they are seeking to influence.
A year on from the first lockdown and the first body of research that looked at islanders’ attitudes concluded that while 90% of those sampled in Guernsey thought their government had followed the right strategy, just 47% in Jersey agreed with how things had been handled.
Both islands acted with the interests of their populations in mind, but Guernsey was able to better package their eradication strategy as protection from the virus, while Jersey’s strategy of managing numbers and opening borders made it seem that all the government wanted to do was just get back to normal.
Had Jersey wanted to raise its game against Guernsey, those behind the campaign should have insisted on daily briefings and worked harder to improve the presentation skills of those delivering the message. What they wore, what they looked like, how they spoke and interacted with their audience really mattered and they should have done better.
Andrew Griffin in his book Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management: A Handbook for PR Practitioners likens pandemic flu to an earthquake or volcanic eruption. It cannot be predicted but when it arrives, an organisation that has not got the basics of communication right will inevitably find it harder to be persuasive.
Jersey Evening Post, 25 March 2020.
Guernsey Press, 25 March 2020.
PR Week, History will record the Government’s greatest Comms failures over Covid-19 by Alan Twigg, 5 Feb 2021.
Ronald Smith, Strategic Planning for Public Relations.
Richard Perloff, The Dynamics of Persuasion.
Andrew Griffin, Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management: A Handbook for PR Practitioners.
Island Global Research, Impact of COVID-19 Survey Results – One Year on – March 2021.