“Fooled Britannia” – why did we only understand 12% of PM Johnson’s COVID Speech? 

Managing Director

EASTWEST Public Relations Group

"Communication usually fails, except by accident” 

Finnish original: Viestintä yleensä epäonnistuu, paitsi sattumalta.

Osmo Antero Wiio, a Finnish academic (1928-2013) wrote was has become known as “Wiio’s law”, appropriately enough when he was a member of parliament (1975–79) and published them in ‘Wiion lait – ja vähän muidenkin’ in 1978.1 His theories over the systemic challenges facing all communication were all on display by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday 10 May 2020, and then by his cabinet over the coming days. Essentially Wiio’s law predicts that an audience will understand only 12% of a message being given due to the many biases and interferences taking place whilst they are supposed to be paying their undivided attention.

Divided by a common language

International US Media outlet CNN identifies that now the message of the Corona response has become a cause of confusion; meaning that the valuable news coverage is not of the remedy but of the handling of the issue. It’s an entirely missed opportunity in PR terms.

So what can a Finnish politician tell us about communication, and the likelihood for misunderstanding?

Here are the basic tenets of Wiio’s law:

1. If communication can fail, it will.

1.1 If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.

1.2 If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.

1.3 If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.

2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.

3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.

4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.

4.1 The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.

5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.

6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.

7. The more important the situation is, the more probably you forget an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

The first law states that reasons communications fail are due to multiple causes, and the problem is that these are not static but dynamic and are also not the same for everyone. One prime example would be language. Language is not universally held to mean the same thing by different people in spite of standardisation. In addition to idioms due to regional dialects, there are the associations and context which words have. The new strapline “Stay Alert” makes one think of bomb "alerts” on the underground, and the school boy joke “Be a lert, the country needs more lerts.” Others would have other associations. The central issue is that “Stay Alert” does not have a universal meaning for the entire audience the PM was addressing, but also doesn’t tell people to be alert in what way, or where, or when. It’s too generic to be functional. 

Within hours, Laws 2 & 3 were going into effect as critics and commentators created memes, shared snippets on social media, and made the 13-minute address into a smorgasbord of soundbites. Those who watched the PM’s address went to explain it to others, the message was corrupted still further as the ambiguity of the message led to reinterpretation. With social media, 4.1 is amplification without filtration or consideration; people often share before we think. People started to interpret the new laws, the declining blue slide of unlocking (charts showing progress normally go upwards?) society had some powerpoint clip art but not metrics beyond the R="1." If people were in favour of more exercise in public and games with a family member, people shared that and if not, then they didn’t. 

According to Business Insider, ‘The UK government’s attempts to loosen the coronavirus lockdown were thrown into chaos on Monday after a senior member of Boris Johnson’s government completely contradicted the new rules outlined by the prime minister.’  

 Enough said about Law #4.

For the 5th law, firstly, Boris Johnson was alone (is he still in isolation but in very nice surroundings?) and that he kept clenching his fists. According to the Body Language Project3 ,  ’In One Sentence: Clenching the hands or balling them in a fist is a sign of repressed aggression.’ If so, towards whom? For a person addressing a nation which has faced lock down often in tight quarters, the expansive space and solitary confinement with a large chandelier and wooden panelled room seemed at odds with the message. As this is the chance to give hope, some flowers would have been a nice touch.

How was the PM showing that he was alert or in tune with the reality of those watching? The graphics were childlike at best, and with homeschooling prevalent, maybe someone had taken advantage of their children’s ability to use powerpoint to create them. This is a nation which leads the world in creativity, education, and technology and all that was necessary was a simple R1 formula. 

This talks to the simplicity of the message, but as there are real statistics about testing, infection and the progress of the spike, one would have thought those could be introduced to show exactly where the nation is standing on the continuum. 

Law 6 means that smaller objects about to hit people are more important than large ones further away. This is why the key rules about lockdown, and how they impact individuals, were the most important to everyone. This is where the lack of clarity was most distressing because these are the nearest points of urgency; can we go to work, return the children to school, go to restaurants, gyms etc. This is where the “Stay Alert” message was not what people needed to hear; of course, everyone is all going to stay alert and not be careless but under what circumstances should certain precautions be taken? Having made a stern threat about increased fines for violation, it was then unclear what the violations would be.

The seventh law is that an audience discards what it has heard before which it considers irrelevant in order to prioritise listening for the direction which it seeks. The charts were being used to illustrate the nature of the issue as the PM said, "We must have a world beating system,"  with fists clenched firmly on the desk.  They didn’t state how much money is being invested nor the actual testing statistics, and the new IT system announced will be ready vaguely “in time.” [Small note – 13 is an unlucky number in some societies, and this is the duration of the speech. They could have drawn it to 18:00 for the Asian audiences who consider 8 to a number of good luck.] How then do these relate to the key message of “Stay Alert,” and how do they conform to EASTWEST PR’s COVID mindset approach (as stated in "The Viral PR Mindset")?

Compassionate – the feeling of empathy although, certainly, the tie and chandeliers on a Sunday evening doesn’t make one feel at home

Optimistic – the public will beat this at some ill defined time in the future with unknown resources being applied

Values based – there was respect for the sacrifices but not a call to arms

Informative – remedial graphics , no mention of masks, and a new task force

Digital – the new app will be launched “in time," but no mention of heat sensors of the kind used in China since SARS, and testing beyond top line numbers

In a statistical model, according to mathematics professor and fellow Finn, Jukka K Korpela4, whilst the messenger has the best of intentions, it is the recipients who will determine the effectiveness of a message being communicated to them. Korpela lists a catalogue of reasons how and why people will reinterpret a message to suit their own paradigm. These include physical and emotional ones:  language, cultural background, age, gender, race, health, time of day, anxiety, perceived bias, fatigue, hearing loss, medication, intoxication, not paying attention, disinterest, etc…and then let’s not even introduce the issue of translations to other languages beyond the 37 dialects of English!

Mr. Korpela, formerly at the Helsinki University of Technology Computing writes, “A single misunderstanding in any essential area destroys the message. If you know some arithmetics, you can see that the odds are really against you. Just take a simple example where communication can fail for twenty different reasons (which is a huge underestimate). Assuming that the probability of failure is just 0.1 (10%) for each of them (unrealistically optimistic), calculations show that you’ll succeed with the probability (1-0.1) to the power 20, which is 12%.”

If Mr Korpela’s numbers are correct, then one message suffering such misunderstanding could indeed be worse than not communicating at all. This, of course, was the strategy of the PM in the race to become PM.  What if there are only 5 variables to account for a 10% level of misunderstanding – let’s be optimistic?  His reply said, “The chances of being understood 100% are at best 59%. This is taking the likelihood of influence of each variable being 10% on the sample size.” So, if this is the case in the UK and 27.5 millions watched Boris Johnson, the CEO of UK Plc, then 16.225 millions understood the “Stay Alert” message and 11.275 millions are wondering why the country needs more lerts.

In PR, clients are coached to: a) use a message home to simplify and standardise the message, b) to set the physical environment to be both relevant to the message and conducive to the audience, c) to use body language to infuse confidence and d) graphics which engage and educate, but above all are clear and concise. 

Messages will be heard and relayed, now more than ever, and as Wiio’s law posits and the mathematicians formula show, the odds of being misunderstood are better than of being understood; especially when colleagues then share information which is contradictory to the oringal messages. 

Looking at the definition of ‘Staying Alert.’ Pay attention to the things around you. The issue then is the assumption that people are not doing so currently, or rather the listener is being told not to stop being alert. The issue with the instruction is that it doesn’t specify the actions people can take in relation to the actions which they have been told not to take currently. 

There was a simplicity in the message which is good practice, but when a message is so simple as to be generic then it is failing to be of value. 1.2 of Wiio’s law is at work – ‘if communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.

Audiences have a staggeringly low chance of understanding a message, possibly as low as 12%, and the broader the audience the more variables there are at play which magnify misunderstanding.  What will be seen in the coming weeks is the true level of understanding from the speech by Boris Johnson on Sunday 10 May 2020. In the case of Covid-19, miscommunication and misunderstanding can literally be a matter of life and death as people’s lives return to being in proximity of others. No wonder then that the PM has his fists clenched frequently during the speech; a sign of repressed aggression at a time of immense challenge and frustration for him and the nation.


We’d be happy to help offer our SPEAK|pr templates to 10 Downing Street, to develop a COVID PR Viral response message and ensure that they retain an active communications campaign which brings clarity and hope to us all.


In the meantime – if you would like to use our templates and workflow for your company just contact Jim now. 

1 Wiion lait – ja vähän muidenkin (Wiio’s laws – and some others’; in Finnish). (Weilin+Göös, 1978, Espoo; ISBN 951-35-1657-1).

2 https://www.businessinsider.com/people-are-confused-by-boris-johnson-new-uk-coronavirus-guidelines-2020-5?r=US&IR=T

3 http://bodylanguageproject.com/nonverbal-dictionary/body-language-of-hand-clenching-or-fist-clenched/

4 http://jkorpela.fi/wiio.html

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