Lessons from past global crises can instruct our communications in the present pandemic.

Propaganda gets a bad name for itself, associated with despots and tyrants trying to force the will of the people through lies, lies and more damned lies. There is an element of truth to that, ironically. However, propaganda can also be used for good against evil as was shown by the Allies during both World Wars.

I’ve heard it said on more than a few occasions that the current pandemic is the biggest global crisis we’ve faced since the Second World War. It’s hard to disagree with that, even though contrary to my teenage sons’ assertions, I didn’t live through that time. So, I asked myself is there anything we can learn from the great propaganda artists of the First and Second World Wars that might help us cut through the noise and communicate to victory now?

Between 1940 and 1945 the British Ministry of Information produced tons of propaganda material to get people at home to play their part in securing victory. They did this using two key themes: save and persuade. First, they encouraged people to save and salvage so that valuable resources could be redirected to those on the frontline (take note bulk buyers). Second, they set about persuading people to adopt a different mindset to drive morale and propel the country forward to a speedier victory.

They employed memorable catchphrases allied with strong visuals: Dig for Victory; Careless Talk Costs Lives; Is Your Journey Really Necessary (sound familiar?)

Propaganda as we know it dates back to the late 18th century when the Catholic Church set up the first propaganda unit to fight the rising popularity of Protestantism (though of course they found other, less subtle ways, of dealing with that in the end). The earliest recorded example of propaganda is thought to date from 515 BC, which believe it or not doesn’t stand for Before Coronavirus. It was the world wars, however, that witnessed propaganda being used to such great effect against a global enemy and, then just as now, the objectives were similar: mobilise people to stand firm; convince the population of the justification for restricted freedoms; enlist active support from non-believers; and to strengthen whole communities in a common cause: survival.

The underlying theme of nearly all propaganda is ‘patriotism’: do it for your nation. For business leaders we could substitute economy for nation. As leaders and entrepreneurs we can use propaganda for the good of our companies and the broader economy, and therefore the wellbeing of our staff. As politicians have rightly (though some may argue belatedly) acknowledged, this is a battle for lives and livelihoods.

Propaganda shares many similarities with modern advertising, PR and internal communications, though I accept they are different before the purists howl in derision and outrage.

The economic threat from a global pandemic has many parallels with the terrible conflicts of the early and mid 20th century:

  • We face a common, deadly enemy
  • We need to stand together to defeat this evil
  • The battle ahead is frightening, wearying and without an end in sight
  • We need to continually motivate our ‘troops’ (staff) and ‘allies’ (customers) to believe we will get through this.

We can do this by using some very basic propaganda techniques:

  • Adopt repetitive messaging – at Orchid we are using ‘Keep Talking’
  • Remind people what we are fighting for – the survival of our businesses and a quick economic recovery
  • Use strong visual language to create memorable and motivating stimuli.

The big difference between 21st century communicators and propagandists 80 years ago is the number of channels we have at our fingertips (literally) and the speed at which we can communicate. Just like the road to the Front, however, the way can become congested, full of endless convoys carrying identical messages that are camouflaged in mediocrity. So, to get your message right where it needs to be and to be heard, be bold and go guerrilla, using every trick and tool in the story box. Don’t just think ‘Digital’ because your people and customers are displaced: the postal and telecommunications services are still working!

Use your foot soldiers as well as your leaders. Not every message has to come from the Top Brass so appeal to the emotions of people at every level of your organisation, and direct to your customers by asking your staff to share their motivational stories and ideas to inspire others. Remind everyone this is a crisis for everyman and that together we will prevail, because that’s what we do as a species.

To seal the victory your propaganda campaign must have a strategy wrapped around a single premise: and you have to be repetitive to the point of boring. The master of this is Dominic Cummings: ‘Take Back Control’; ‘Get Brexit Done’; and the latest iteration ‘Whatever it Takes’. If his words can do for defeating COVID-19 what they did for winning Vote Leave and Brexit – motivate a mass of people to change an ingrained mindset in the pursuit of victory – then hurrah!

Our rallying cry for Jersey Business is ‘Keep Business Working’ and for Orchid ‘Let’s Keep Talking’. What will yours be?

Like the best propaganda campaigns, your strategy must be organised, co-ordinated and psychologically powerful; active and not passive – a propellant and not a repellent.

Above all, the important – the most important – thing to remember is your campaign should inspire not instruct. Start now to build your narrative, tell your story and let your message ring loud.

Now, more than ever, Your Economy Needs Good Comms.