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Crisis communications

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed UK government decision-making in a manner not seen for decades. Here is a chronological overview of the government’s response to the virus, with a focus on central government in England. It is updated on an ongoing basis.

The government’s response is seen through a communications and reputational lens. External factors such as health, financial, economic, social, cultural, political, legal and regulatory actions and events, and media coverage and public opinion polling, are highlighted in italics.

Pollsters IPSOS-MORI, YouGov and Opinium provide useful data and insights on UK public opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. For an international perspective see Pew Research.


March 2021


February 2021



January 2021



December 2020



November 2020


UK political party fitness to govern, Ipsos MORI, October 2020


October 2020


Voting intention since 2019 general election, Opinium, Sept 2020

September 2020


Approval for UK govt handling of COVID-19, Opinium, August 2020

August 2020


Perception of COVID-19 management by UK govt, Kings College/Ipsos MORI, July 2020

July 2020


Confidence in UK govt, UCL, August 2020

June 2020


UK govt priorities during COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, May 2020

May 2020


Health vs economy priorities dusing COVID-19, Ipsos MORI, April 2020

April 2020


Perceptions of COVID-19 management in the UK, YouGov, March 2020

March 2020


February 2020


January 2020


December 2019

  • 31: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission informs WHO of cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’

This timeline aims to give a balanced view of the UK government’s response to COVID-19. It does not claim to be comprehensive.

Let me know if there is anything important that is missing, unfair or inaccurate.

You are welcome to use, copy and adapt the contents of this timeline. When doing so, ensure you attributeCharlie Pownall/CPC & Associates‘ and provide a clear, prominent link back to this resource in line with the following licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an orgy of news stories, commentary and analysis in which the terms crisis, disaster and emergency have been used almost interchangeably. What is the correct terminology?

According to Muckrack’s Trends research tool, the terms crisis and emergency dominate media headlines and body copy.

These three terms are closely related and overlap significantly, yet each has its own distinct meaning and implications.

  • A crisis is an issue or event that invites unwanted external scrutiny, seriously impacts an organisation’s ability to do business, and jeopardises its reputation. There are many types of crises (and non-crises); research shows most crises stem from management weaknesses.
  • An emergency is an unplanned event such as fire, flood, evacuation, violent crime or fatality that affects an organisation locally and requires immediate action. The impact of an emergency is generally limited to the initial event itself.
  • A disaster is a severe situation that affects broader society and which has the potential to interrupt business operations on a longer-term basis. Examples include an earthquake, a tornado, a major flood or power outage, or a serious health pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus technically classifying as a disaster, it is no surprise that journalists and commentators prefer the term crisis given it is media shorthand for pretty much anything that goes or can go wrong.

Blurred boundaries

Yet the boundaries between crisis, emergency and disaster are less straightforward than they first appear.

The coronavirus may be a disaster for health organisations and inter-governmental organisations, but it is also resulting in serious crises for companies shut down by government decree or mishandling how they manage their response.

And a really serious crisis resulting in significant environmental, social, economic or geo-political damage – think BP Deepwater Horizon – is often termed a disaster (‘a crisis with a bad ending’), or even a catastrophe.

Communicators beware

Crisis teams and communicators, however, should take real care with their terminology. Planning and responding to serious negative events requires precision with what words mean and imply.

A health pandemic necessitates a different response to a workplace fatality or data privacy breach. Different teams are often involved, and each scenario demands different policies, protocols and messages. Activating the wrong plan can be disastrous.

While COVID-19 is growing exponentially, it is no emergency, no matter what the media says. But it is a crisis for some organisations and a disaster for others.

And for a few, it spells potential catastrophe.

Volkswagen’s diesel emissions test saga is one of the most complex, sustained and costly crises in recent years.

VW’s response is seen through a reputational and communications lens. External factors such as important legal, regulatory, industry and other inputs, outputs and outcomes are highlighted in italics.


2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2008

2004

  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) significantly tightens diesel emissions standards

This timeline aims to give a balanced view of VW’s response to its diesel emissions crisis. It does not claim to be comprehensive.

Let me know if there is anything important that is missing, unfair or inaccurate.

You are welcome to use, copy and remix the contents of this timeline. When doing so, ensure you attribute ‘Charlie Pownall/CPC & Associates‘ and provide a clear, prominent link back to this resource in line with the following licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Most companies expressly avoid mentioning past scandals in their advertising. Not so VW, which makes its 2015 diesel emissions crisis the starting point for its new ‘Hello Light’ ad.

The ad is clearly intended to signal VW’s shift to electric driving, while drawing on the company’s glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. It is eye-catching, and feels honest and refeshingly unnostalgic.

It is also brave. For one, there are clear risks in framing the firm’s shift to electric through the prism of its diesel emissions fiasco. Purists might also complain there is no apology – just as there was no apology in VW’s November 2015 goodwill marketing campaign.

Hello Light is no one-off, but is part of VW’s larger ‘Drive Something Bigger Than Yourself’ brand campaign that aims to press home it’s commitment to electric while drawing on its rich history.

Yet VW’s diesel emissions woes are far from over. With legal cases in 50 countries, 2019 may prove to be the company’s ‘most difficult year ever’ according to Hiltrud Werner VW Group board member and head of compliance.

Each court case will bring a rash of unwelcome publicity as old documents are raked over and new evidence comes to light. Much will hinge on the company’s rogue employee defence, which is looking increasingly brittle.

While risky, VW’s electric driving campaign is also strategically critical. Diesel sales have been dropping sharply.

Major cities are banning diesel cars in their centres. And several top auto manufacturers have promised to end production of the internal combustion engine. VW says its last generation of combustion engines will be launched in 2026.

In addition, the electric market is a challenging proposition thanks to new entrants such as Tesla and the relatively high cost of electric technologies, even if these costs are now starting to fall as volume increases.

Set against this background, VW’s electric driving campaign is worth the strategic and reputational risks.

Arguably, it should have been run sooner.

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