It’s no great secret that effective communication is important whether faced by crisis or otherwise, however a crisis does heighten the need to convey important messages and ensure that they’re understood.

The UK Government’s apparent inability to take hold of the Covid-19 catastrophe is a lesson in communication, with both good and bad examples. Without heaping further criticism on them it is possible to see what we can learn.

Rule of three

It is obvious that the Govt. comms team are obsessed with the rule of three. Most will be familiar with the rationale behind this, it’s a triptych which apparently dates back to Aristotle.  For those who are not, it is an effective means of communicating in both written and verbal forms. A pattern of three units combines both brevity and rhythm and is the smallest grouping to allow this. In the early days of Covid the simple message of ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives’ was effective mostly because it led with a clear instruction. Frequent repetition of the message was invaluable to drive it home, following the holy grail of presenting information: Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.

It is suggested that the first message was so successful that it became difficult to modify it in later stages. Indeed, the mistake at that point may have been in trying to repeat the process with slightly different messaging, thereby prompting confusion. Latterly, particularly when backed up with simple graphics, they got back on track with ‘Hands, Face, Space’ although they had undermined their own efforts by this point, enabling sufficient doubt and suspicion to creep in during the process. Distrust from your target audience will naturally scupper most of your efforts.

For our purposes, the rule of three to apply to your comms efforts can be clarified, with a bit of alliteration to help it stick. Always communicate clearly, calmly and confidently.


Communicating with a wide audience is impossible without clarity. Ideally you would know your target market and your model customer and aim the messaging at them, in a language they speak – terms and phrasing they’d use. To communicate more widely and take in a broader audience you need simplicity, common words and clear ideas. It is broadly accepted that the most popular newspapers in the country are written for a reading age of 9-12. To be easily understood you may have to mimic the masters.


A crisis often induces panic, and this clouds the mind as it races around trying to find a safe-ground of reason or explanation. In order to cut through this you will have to deliver the message calmly, to provide the solution and pacify the crowd. Choice of words is all important here, think of positive terms instead of negative ones, you want to establish control.


If you want to be believed you will have to appear confident. To be sure of the facts enables you to transmit them to a receptive audience. Clarity, calmness and confidence are the three tiers to any communication, crisis or no crisis. If you’d like to add a fourth, then consistency is also valuable. People distrust back-tracking and u-turns – if you’re following the science one day then ignoring it on another will badly undermine your credibility.

communication in a crisis
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In the situations and circumstances surrounding Covid-19 it can be argued that there was too much complexity, too many differentials and changing circumstances over too wide an audience and geographical area. It should still have been simplified and having a 3-tier system using both numbers and explainers could seldom hit the intended goal of being readily comprehensible, particularly when the lowest or starting tier is ‘medium’. It’s never a great idea to try and bend widely understood words to a new meaning.

If you want to cut-through a crisis, think and communicate clearly, calmly and confidently with consistency and credibility. Check your thinking and wording with external advisors or consultants if you have any doubts, and always be sure of the points you’re trying to make.