There was a time in the 70’s and 80’s when the Government’s press and communications office the Central Office for Information (the COI) produced public information films which were distributed to the broadcast media.
The PIFs I recall were powerful shorts – slightly longer than the average commercial – warning viewers about, say, the dangers of children playing near railway tracks, crossing the road and stranger danger.
Some – even by today’s standards – were scary and gruesome but others informative, measured and powerful.
[Click here for some examples of Public Information Films in the UK]
Not just for kids
One example of the more effective PIFs involved a lingering shot from above of a child’s crushed shoe on a railway track. This bleak image has stayed with me for more than forty years and served as a non-sensational but poignant image about the dangers of playing near railways.
For some time I’ve felt that the films should be revived, especially in times of crisis, or more accurately what we might call ‘pre-crisis’; specifically in 2020, in relation to the coronavirus in order to advise people what to do if they believe that someone in their household is infected.
The PIFs from bygone days were produced and paid for by the COI – okay,okay.. us, the taxpayers. I doubt very much whether such funds would be readily made available nowadays but surely a joint funding model involving the BBC, commercial broadcasters and yes maybe even Government coffers could be found.
They could be shown by BBC and independent broadcasters on tv, radio & the internet. They would be impactful with clear calls to action without inducing panic but informing people what to do in the event of an outbreak e.g. how to wash your hands properly, how to look after the patient and under what circumstances to contact the hospital or GP.
They need to be targeted at households and places of work to help prevent it spreading.
Don’t panic !
The key aims of the public health campaign would be to contain the virus, giving advice to sufferers and their families how to recover in their homes and – crucially – stop people unnecessarily turning up at their local A & E or GP surgery and spreading the virus.
Now, or at least over the next few weeks, may be the time to do it before we get to this crisis point.
If this is something Public Health England and/or the broadcasters are already preparing behind the scenes then great…..
One of the key tenets of crisis communications preparation is to ‘expect the best and prepare for the worst’ and it’s my view that by reviving the public information films, and adopting their ethos in all of our comms we can prepare the public for the worst without causing undue alarm ; just relying on news bulletins, the internet and social media to get the message through will simply not get the job done and reach all the people you need to target.
The trick will be to focus outside of the slots where you would expect to see them in order to get the message home more effectively – not just in ad breaks but at other times ; a nightmare for schedulers perhaps but exceptional times demand exceptional methods of communication.
Professor John Ashton from the University of Liverpool is a former director of public health ( such regional posts no longer exist) for the North West of England. Over the past few weeks he has been critical of Public Health England’s public response to the growing concern about the coronavirus:
“..if the response by Public Health England is anything to go by, we still appear to be equipped only for the 19th century rather than the 21st. Its response so far smacks of paternalism and secrecy…
“Open and trusted communications are essential yet so far have been weak.”
Commentary, Daily Telegraph, p14, Saturday 15th February 2020.
Surely it’s time to revive the PIFs and encourage our broadcasters to produce short films and audio packages informing people about what to do if the virus spreads ? They must be authoritative and informative rather than shocking.
The PIFs won’t do the job by themselves – they need to be part of a multi-platform and wide-ranging awareness campaign – but they will be able to get the facts to people before the scaremongers and panic-builders on social media kick off.
It’s not just a domestic issue either, it applies to our workplaces – offices, factories and schools.
Ashton is one of many health professionals who have warned that the hospital A and E departments will not be able to cope if coronavirus becomes a pandemic and people flock in their hundreds down to the nearest hospital.
Timing is crucial
The PIFs need to be produced NOW so ordinary families know what to do in their homes should it spread.
If the pandemic doesn’t happen then no harm is done because you won’t have unnecessarily induced panic in the first place.