The threatened March petrol strike in the UK: did the public panic? And the importance of messaging.

In the closing days of March, the UK print and electronic media are full of stories of panic petrol buying by members of the public fearful of a possible petrol delivery drivers’ strike only days before the traditional Easter getaway.    Was the behaviour of the public an example of large scale panic, or simply a rational response to government messaging?

A key interview that sparked much of the public behaviour was given by Francis Maude, a UK Cabinet Office minister, to SKY NEWS on the 28 March 2012.  You can find the interview on YOUTUBE at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYqxBmtOkvM

Francis Maude, who has been chairing meetings with government colleagues to plan the government response to the threatened strike, made the following comments outside Number 10 Downing Street:

 “….to the extent that people can get some petrol in their cars some fuel in their cars, as and when, no desperate hurry, because as I say the union hasn’t given notice and they have to give seven days notice, that is going to help.”

The minister made it clear that the strike had not yet been called, and that there would need to be seven days notice of a strike.  However, he also made the point that it would be a good idea for the public to get some petrol in their cars.  This is clearly a message to the public that it would be a good idea to ensure that their cars were topped up with fuel.  He went on to say,

“All we can say is that we need to make sure people know this is happening; it’s up to people to make their own decisions; there is no need for rushing around in a mad dash, this is not about to happen tomorrow.”

The minister reiterates that the potential strike is not going to happen in the next day or so, thereby informing the public that there is no immediate threat, but then goes on to say,

“….as and when, when it makes sense a bit of extra fuel in the jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take.”

Fill those jerry cans - just doing what the minister suggested.

Following government advice

Here the minister directly contradicts himself by encouraging the public, not only to make sure that they have topped up their cars with fuel, but to stock-pile petrol in their garages, even though there is no immediate threat of a strike taking place in the next seven days.  The storage of petrol by the general public in their garages is not normal behaviour.  Indeed, it is very unsafe behaviour, which is discouraged by fire and rescue services as domestic fires fuelled by petrol can become extremely dangerous.  However, despite there being no immediate threat of a strike and hence shortage of petrol for the next seven days, the minister is encouraging the public to stock-pile petrol supplies at their homes.  The minister attempted to clarify the government’s position by adding:

“People need to make their own decision, all we can do is make sure they know what is potentially in the offing, we hope the strike won’t happen …but we do want the public to be aware that there is a risk and that we are making contingency plans to keep essential and emergency services going, and we think that the public should be aware of this risk so that in the ordinary course of their business they can take what ever steps, everyone chooses and takes responsibility for themselves; that’s all we can do.  We are not advising people that they should do this or that, we are pointing out what the possibilities are and pointing out things that they might chose to do if they want to…”

So the message to the public was that your course of action is up to you.  However, in this context, a senior government minister, standing outside Number 10, is a highly authoritative source of advice likely to have influence with the public and it was made clear that the government were already taking measures to ensure that their vehicles would be able to function during a potential strike.  Furthermore, the actions that the public can take to prepare for the strike, should it happen are, top up your cars and stock-pile petrol at home in your garage!

Panic or following instructions?

The messaging from this senior government official, while admittedly not clear, strongly suggested a course of action that the public should follow.   On the one hand the government does not want to be responsible for the actions taken by the public, while on the other hand the government is providing thinly veiled advice to top-up and stock-pile.

If we now put this situation into the context of the upcoming Easter four-day weekend — nine days away at the time — is it little wonder that the public queued at petrol stations to fill up their fuel tanks and jerry cans?   I would not describe this as panic buying, but a rational response to a senior government minister’s advice.   The situation is also self perpetuating, as members of the public see people queuing for fuel, and the media report of petrol stations going dry, more and more people are encouraged to queue for fuel.   This is not panic, but a rationale response to government messaging fuelled by behavioural feedback.

This is yet another example of the incorrect usage of the word ‘panic’ by the media and the public.  It is also an example of the power and importance of messaging in potential crisis situations.  This situation demonstrates what can be achieved by messaging, and how it is possible for an authoritative source to influence the behaviour of the public through messaging.   The challenge is to be clear about your communication objectives and get the messaging, messenger and timing right to achieve them. 

Messaging can also be a powerful tool in accident and disaster management.  In voice-based building fire alarm systems, the correct messaging — again from an authoritative source — can decrease occupant response times, encouraging occupants to start their evacuation.  In large-scale disaster situations, messaging can be used to positively influence the public’s behaviour in ways that may appear to be counter intuitive e.g. advice to seek shelter when the natural response would be to evacuate or visa versa.

Did the messaging provided by Francis Maude achieve the government’s objectives? To answer this question it is essential to know what those objectives were.  I’ll leave it to the politically-minded to decide.

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