A black and white photo of an elderly man mimicking a character from the TV series, Dad's Army.

Part Two: ‘Don't Panic’

So – ‘don’t panic!’ Ah, another classic catchphrase that will resonate with the older readers amongst you, as well as the comedy connoisseurs – some of us can’t hear those words without picturing Lance Corporal Jones doing exactly the opposite, with a despairing Captain Mainwaring struggling to retain some semblance of control of his Home Guard platoon. Dad’s Army was a mainstay of the BBC schedules throughout the 1970s, regularly attracting massive audiences as the series seemed to act as some darkly comic form of collective catharsis for post-war Britons, coming out of the age of ration books and blackouts whilst coming to terms with even more troubling potential terrors on the horizon as the cold war loomed large.

To modern viewers, the sight of the middle-aged local bank manager, butcher, undertaker et al coming together in their off-hours to defend their homeland in wartime might seem far-fetched and ridiculous, and yet here we are fifty years on watching video clips of Ukrainian women leaving classrooms and boardrooms to make Molotov cocktails in the park – truth stranger than fiction, tragically.

Despite the scenes we may see on tv and movie screens of mass panic and crowds of people waving their hands in a frenzy, in reality, as humans we rarely act completely irrationally in times of crisis – we’re all familiar with the 'fight or flight response', right? As Social Change UK’s Dr Rachel Langbein explains, “When we're faced with threats to our health, safety or even survival, we either seek to tackle it head-on and 'fight' or flee the situation altogether. Such innate and rational responses are often misinterpreted and presented as 'panic' in the media, which can be dangerous as this inaccurately represents the risks of the emergency situation.”

For example, it wasn’t so long ago that a few ill-timed (but otherwise innocent enough) comments regarding the dwindling number of HGV drivers in the UK led to chaotic scenes at petrol station forecourts across the country; ‘there’s a fuel shortage’, screamed the headlines glibly and erroneously – cue 'panic-buying' of fuel, which allied to the lack of delivery tankers, actually created a fuel shortage - admittedly just an artificial one (exacerbated by supply chain issues, as plenty of fuel was available at refineries). Still, it could have been worse – it could have been toilet rolls again!



Public information films, including ‘Protect and Survive’, were broadcast on TV in the 1970s and 1980s – Government commissioned shorts designed to keep the masses informed on best-practice behaviours, on everything from disposing of litter and crossing the road to mitigating the fallout from an atomic weapons attack. The Protect and Survive campaign also included printed media complete with a pamphlet of tips on keeping your home and family safe in the event of nuclear war – for a time, speculation over the purpose of the guide (and the consequences of circulating it led to debate at Westminster.

If the reactions around the creation and publication of Protect and Survive served to illustrate the difficulties in timing the release of sensitive information, a thematic successor to the campaign in the mid 2000s provided us with further reminder of that British penchant for gallows humour. Following the terror attacks in the United States on September 11th 2001, the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, as well as disease outbreaks around the world including foot and mouth in the UK, the Government produced a booklet and website entitled ‘Preparing for Emergencies’. Within days of the website going live, a parody version sprung-up online purporting to be from the ‘HM Department of Vague Paranoia’ with content focused on such likely occurrences as intergalactic aliens landing on Earth!

A person holding a clipboard with an emergency plan attached to it in front of various emergency supplies.

There seems to have been a similarly negative response from the public any time the Government has tried to engage in any kind of ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ talk – obviously people don’t like to dwell on upsetting situations, it’s emotionally draining. As a result, it appears that the bulk of this important information is now issued with very little fanfare and in very dry and technical terms for the most part – the dour black strap that adorns the ’dot Gov’ website heads pages for Local Resilience Forums, Emergency Response & Recovery, the aforementioned Preparing for Emergencies, complemented by a ‘slightly’ more exciting looking Critical Incident management document from the Home Office. The information is there – but it’s not exactly engaging, easily digestible, particularly well presented, or even up to date in some cases.

For most ‘local’ emergencies and even some more national issues, most people are advised to keep an eye on their local authority’s media channels, with twitter often being the go-to platform for keeping people informed. A quick peep at your local authority’s follower count will likely reveal that not every resident is availing themselves of their council’s updates on a regular basis though; maybe for many people, ignorance really is bliss? Somewhat ironically, after the Government had been accused of unnecessarily worrying people, London would face a spate of train bombings on July 7th 2005 – the Preparing for Emergencies website was updated in the wake of these attacks, eventually being folded into the main ‘dot Gov’ website a few years later.

So why have government communications continued to fall short of their aims to encourage positive social action in response to recent national and global events? One influential factor is they are not seen to be an honest, trustworthy, and relatable messenger for the information they deliver.

As the behavioural scientist for Social Change UK, Dr Rachel Langbein, explains, “Messenger is the first principle of the MINDSPACE framework (that outlines 9 of the most robust influences on human behaviour) and represents the notion that we are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us, which ultimately influences our decision-making. We consider a number of characteristics when deciding how trustworthy and reliable a messenger (and thus the message they are delivering) is, such as shared values and traits, expertise, and consistency. If a messenger is not seen to be relatable or provides mixed messaging, the likelihood of them being listened to will dramatically reduce.”

There are always going to be times that we need to look to someone better informed for guidance but it's understanding exactly whose advice to heed in a crisis that’s the trick! The strongest messengers will be those who are prepared – watch out for the final blog in this series, (Part 3: ‘Be Prepared’) for more on this.