Maja Pawinska Sims 27 Oct 2022 // 1:46PM GMT
WASHINGTON, DC — The first day of the PRovoke Global summit closed with an exclusive overview of the communications element of the UK government’s plans around the death, mourning and state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September, code-named Operation London Bridge.
Alex Aiken, executive director at the UK Government Communication Service, shared the communications lessons from the “big canvas” 11-day plan, and the role of government communicators to announce the queen’s death, commemorate her life, support the royal family and introduce the new king Charles, in an attempt to unite the nation.
“I believe we were successful for four reasons,” said Aiken. “First, because of the talent we had recruited. Second, the teamwork we developed. Third, the preparation we had undertaken and, finally, the credibility we gained through the use of data-driven communication.”
Aiken said the preparations for Operation London Bridge well in advance of the queen’s death on September 8 – he has personally been involved with the plan for a decade – involved hundreds of communicators: “We prepared, worked through scenarios, built relationships, recruited and trained 300 volunteers. Part of that preparation involved bringing in behavioural insights experts who could teach us how people would react to this death in the national family.
“And our credibility was enhanced because of our deployment of technology and data which turned into information for the public and insight to enable decision makers to help deliver the London Bridge project and amplify the communication effect.”
The Government Communication Service was at the heart of the national communication effort, delivering a plan agreed by ministers, providing media support, assistance to journalists, digital content, advice to the public, research and insight to ministers, media monitoring, rebuttal and national branding which provided a backdrop to events such as a ‘National Moment of Reflection’.
“It was a full spectrum communication operation,” said Aiken. “One significant lesson we have learned over the past few years is that to be successful you need to bring all the communication disciplines together to successfully deliver strategy and have clear objectives and 'always on' evaluation.
“In the team we put together for London Bridge, there was the understanding that teamwork had to flow from having all the talent in the room, including data scientists and behavioural experts, and the magic happens when you have diversity of skills and views and share them and debate. The showed the power of bringing PR, branding, external and internal comms and media logistics together.
“It’s easy in corporate life and in the public services to forget to collaborate, to create organisational silos – and sometimes to think the worst of people – but we were able to create a collaborative national venture involving 300 public orgs, four governments across the UK, the royal households and 200 local authorities. At the heart of this was the news and communications centre – we had trained, prepared and exercised, but bringing the team together and working essentially 24/7 over 11 days straight means you need clarity of roles and flawless execution across agencies. It requires clarity and humility.”
Aiken said tracking and measuring media and sentiment was a key element of the campaign: “Every day during the 11 days between the death of the queen and her funeral, there was a ministerial meeting where I was the comms advisor. There was one argument about a feature in the Telegraph and they asked me what I was going to do about it. I said I wouldn’t do anything, because it’s probably read by 100,000 people, while David Beckham had millions of views on TikTok of him standing in the queue to file past the queen’s coffin. Our daily dashboard on media sentiment told a positive story about a strongly visual, video-led story that was going around the world.”
He underlined the importance of the visual elements of the plan: “I cannot overemphasise the power of the visual message in all that we did. We worked with marketers and branding experts to commemorate the funeral, and their visuals were taken up by private and public sector organisations and used around the country. The stream of digital content was liked and shared around the world.”
Aiken also further outlined the importance of data and technology in the operation, including working with Google to quickly develop a bespoke tool for the public to track the queue in London to file past the queen’s coffin: “The data and tools we brought together helped to give confidence to government leaders that communications was having an effect.
“The most significant thing was ‘The Queue’ for approximately 250,000 people, because we wanted to give the public a degree of agency to commemorate the queen. Google was heavily involved – we worked with them to develop a YouTube channel on the queue.”
Aiken said the volume of positive coverage around the world also helped to counter state-led disinformation: “We were surprised at how much interest there was, and the global media reaction – the story was tracked around the world. It was an extraordinary revelation for us. There were also negative comments – on the day of the funeral official Russian channels were initially respectful and quickly switched to asking if it was the end for Britain.
“But the sheer weight of coverage, visuals, videos, YouTube, TikTok and public reaction drowned out the disinformation: state-led channels switched off and decided it was not worth trying to critique Britain over this.”
Aiken concluded: “It’s been my privilege and fortune to lead UK government communications through a series of extraordinary moments – the Brexit campaign was the biggest at the time, then came Covid, then tragically war in Ukraine and then the queen. A critical part of the decision-making process for London Bridge was to underline what communications can add, what you want to achieve and how you want to look back, and reviewing the strategy every morning and every evening. I fear too many communicators rush straight to implementation and tactical delivery without asking, what do we want to do here?
“The impact was to bring the nation together and show the world that Britain can still offer great spectacle – of course – but also communicated the values of government, living tradition and service that the late queen embodied. We are very proud that as public service communicators we were able to serve her and the king in this way.”