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UK prime minister must communicate clearly to ‘keep calm and carry on’

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak waves after arriving at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, after returning from Buckingham Palace where he was formally appointed to the post by Britain’s King Charles III.

Just weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s economic stability has devolved into a financial and public relations nightmare. Leadership changes have whipsawed through the government, a financial crisis is escalating, and the new king has stumbled through a series of royal gaffes.

If ever there were a time to “keep calm and carry on,” it is now. The country that gave us the phrase must embody the same ethos and communicate confidence if Britain’s leaders are to regain the world’s trust.

The Sept. 8 death of the queen after more than 70 years on the throne marked the end of an era. Elizabeth was a comforting figurehead who guided the country through existential as well as financial crises, as well as royal tragedies and triumphs. She was the model of stability and confidence.

The challenges before the United Kingdom are weighty. Brits must simultaneously embrace King Charles III, who acceded to the throne upon his mother’s death, at the same time as they look to the third prime minister in less than two months.

Rishi Sunak officially took over as Britain’s new prime minister this week. At age 42, he is the youngest to hold the office in 200 years, as well as the first person of color and the first Hindu. His predecessor Liz Truss announced she would resign after just 45 days on the job, making her the shortest-serving prime minister in the history of the country. Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson resigned amid scandal in July after serving since 2019.

This chaotic game of musical chairs has put the country on edge, and the tumult within the British Parliament has made the stakes even higher for the young prime minister. 

Sunak’s first order of business should be focusing upon communication. Specifically, he needs a multi-pronged strategy aimed at calming frayed nerves. His second should be demonstrating quiet competence and resolve. To present an air of stability and a return to normalcy, Sunak’s messaging must be clear, effective and persistent.

Britain’s newly crowned king is also facing communications challenges, and it remains to be seen if he has the ability to reshape the image he projects to his subjects.

Shortly after his mother’s death, Charles became the target of critics when cameras captured him grimacing in irritation over a leaky fountain pen as he signed a visitor’s book. The footage made the 73-year-old appear sour, stodgy and intolerant, a stark contrast to his late mother’s serene composure and ever-present grace. How Charles reacts to Prince Harry’s upcoming Netflix show and tell-all book about the royals will also be closely watched. Will the king bestow royal titles upon grandchildren Archie and Lilibet, Harry and Meghan Markle’s children, or will he cast them aside?

Meanwhile, the British public and global markets are feeling anything but calm in the wake of the jarring leadership upheavals from the past month-and-a-half. The UK’s stock and bond markets have lost at least $500 billion in combined value as a result of the controversy and instability. Truss shattered investor confidence with a shocking tax-cutting budget that was soundly rejected. Her policy proposals and profligate spending spooked markets and undermined government credibility.

Sunak must take the helm and steer the nation into calmer waters. Only time will tell if he will prove up to the task. “There will be integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of the government I lead, and I will work day-in and day-out to get the job done,” Sunak said in a statement. Let’s hope he puts his money where his mouth is.

The results have implications that extend far beyond the reaches of the UK, owing to London’s status as an economic epicenter for Europe and the world.

To prevail and quickly get their house in order, the British heads of government and state must immediately communicate the quiet confidence and resolve that has characterized the nation for hundreds of years.

Evan Nierman is CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and author of “Crisis Averted: PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line.”

Tags Boris Johnson British Prime Minister's Office British Royal Family British royals England Government of the United Kingdom Great Britain Liz Truss Politics of the United Kingdom Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Public relations queen elizabeth II Queen Elizabeth II Rishi Sunak United Kingdom

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