Our main storytellers have not been compelling this far into the COVID-19 crisis.

It has become a standard criticism that the messages being delivered – or that we have been hearing – are confusing, not strong enough, contradictory, not cutting through, not logical, based on economics and not health.

This has no doubt contributed to uncertainty, the fear, the “she’ll be right” attitude of some.

In the past five days it feels like there’s been a shift.  “If you can stay home, you must” in Victoria is coming in a little stronger in social media and the media, with those who flaunt it being shamed or penalised.

It shouldn’t be a blame game in the community, but that lack of initial clarity and the fear will continue to drive it.

An emergency management pal of mine mentioned the outcomes of Victoria’s last pandemic – H1n1 in April 2009, which was before my time in emergency communications. She indicated there wasn’t as much panic then despite deaths.

What’s different from then to now? Social media and ‘community’ experts.

In the past five weeks, the amount of times we saw people running out of toilet paper was funny at first. But I bet all of us followed that up with the thought “maybe I should go get some”.

The Victorian Chief Health Officer hit a home run yesterday with his tweet calling the behaviour of those congregating at the beach as “crap”. Better yet, he went on to explain why that was a problem and the consequences (deaths).

However, the response varied between agreement and the strong opinion that people shouldn’t be blamed when there has been such confusion across governments in the advice being provided.

It’s no doubt true that integration of communication is somewhat easier to do when it’s one State – harder to do across the nation and the world in differing timeframes and circumstances.

We’ve seen the disastrous effect of that not occurring in the past few weeks and the impact on the opinion of the community about those in leadership.

  • Without integrated communications, any sniff of contradictory info and you start to lose it.
  • When the messages are different from people’s lived experiences, any good messages you’re pushing out are undermined.
  • When emotion drives the thinking, logic doesn’t work. Traumatised people don’t take in information and won’t believe it.

There’s a lot that can be said on communicating during a crisis and a number of people who do it extremely well. It’s not just a talent; it takes hard work and experience.

I spoke last week to The Mandarin on communicating in crisis, and my main points were around leadership, communication, innovation and opportunity.

Leadership and communication

In an emergency, leaders aren’t permitted to fail because the community (and Twitter) have very little tolerance for failure.

  • Talk. Listen. Be visible. Be real (authentic) and don’t smirk.
  • Show you’re listening by acting.
  • Know your stuff. But stay in your lane when you need to.
  • Be consistent. Give consistency.
  • Don’t assume the named leader is the best and only communicator (relevant for communicators here).
  • Build your champions and use your stakeholders and community leaders to get messages out. Listen to them and support them.
  • Don’t get impatient. In many cases, the media will ask and continue to ask the questions that community want to know the answer to (barring any particular bias or affiliation media have).
  • Respond to those who matter – the community and your stakeholders. But work to manage those who can do you damage. Bring them into the tent.
  • Respond to what is causing the fear, as well as addressing the fear itself.

Communicators are only as good as the information they have. Comms 101. They should be in early. Leaders need to listen and respond to their communication people.

Good communication practitioners will reflect the community concern and response and positioning required to address same.

And to do that communicators need to continually check whether the crisis communications are actually getting through to the community (social distancing/physical distancing…).

In the case of COVID-19, it’s abundantly clear that the messages – to this point – weren’t/aren’t.

Innovation and Opportunity

Easier said than done, I know. But pick up the phone to community, innovators, partners, corporates.  Make them all your partners.

The system/product/new procedure you know would take months to get going in normal times can happen incredibly in a crisis-timeframe.

Communicators don’t always get this opportunity. In times of emergencies you get the permission to do things differently.

Or get the wheels going and ask for forgiveness later……

Any organisation can wear an accusation of over-reacting. It is very, very difficult to come back from an accusation of under reacting and having a catastrophic outcome.

Can’t help but wonder if we’re on the cusp of that.

I consider myself pretty well informed. I read the news, I watch the press conferences, I sift through the commentators, I absorb the community feeling. I know how the emergency management arrangements generally work, I know the systems in place that can be used to talk to people and I know the pros and cons.

And yet, I am in the dark.

I’ve observed the panic buying, I’ve navigated the changing advice and rules, I’ve tried to watch dispassionately like an outer body experience or as an interested outsider the increasing fear, criticism, confusion and dissonance from people’s lived experiences and the messaging being provided by our leaders and spokespeople.

And this week I am angry.

I make no comment on whether some of the Australian States fracturing from the Federal approach is the right thing to do or not.

But the ‘how’ it’s being done has got me stuffed.   If the idea of Victoria, NSW and QLD is at least to be responding to the gut filling anxiety some in the community are experiencing, the weekend announcements did not reduce it.

The Victorian Premier’s statement of a ‘shutdown’ of all non-essential services was strong. It was ahead of the national cabinet. It said more details to come on Monday…..

‘LOCKDOWN’ screamed the media.    My local small businesses started announcing their closures because of Covid-19 on Instagram. Cafes, restaurants, hairdressers.  I called my more vulnerable friends to check in, my locally travelling dad, disconnected from the social media world, to say he should head home to the farm the next day and the parents decided they would sit tight and lock the doors against the world.

I whatsapped my entire team, telling them to still proceed with their working plans Monday and we would reassess with more information when we knew exactly who and what was affected. Each conversation, I put a caveat on it that while media was saying it was going to be a ‘lockdown’, what that meant wasn’t entirely clear yet.

The PM’s defensive and late press conference on Sunday night provided some specific details about what would close and when, but did not answer all the questions.

Schools were contentious but some certainty at least in Victoria – and I heard from the PM that hairdressers didn’t have to close after all and cafes could still do takeaways (which many already were) so their Instagram and Facebook pages expressed more confusion. Did they really need to close just yet ? Should they for their own health and business good anyway?

And me : so closures and not lockdown then, I asked Twitter? Was I wrong in what I understood? Did I miss something? Twitter simply shrugged its shoulders at me with a palms up emoji.

With a continuing caveat, I whatsapped my team, because the Premier would still have more to say Monday morning.

Waking early, wondering and tired, I was confused and cranky. Looking again for the missing clarity in planning and in communicating that planning and the best community steps.

As a communicator and community member I have an opinion, like many with similar backgrounds.   It’s not about throwing stones in a rapidly changing and evolving situation because I get it. This situation is a case study for crazy and as recovery community engagement specialist Anne Leadbetter observed to me separately, this situation will fill the future of PHDs and research for years to come in community behaviour change, fear and communication strategy.

But as a human being with family members, friends and team members I’m afraid to touch or breathe on, I’m needy.

The logical part of me says what I need is a more strategic plan or idea of the potential next stages, an idea of the consequences and the escalation points. What I want is rock solid, consistent, empathetic, well planned and executed, visible, responsive, coordinated response that responds to my fear and my need to control what I can in the actions I can take.

The Premier today reiterated the actions as individuals we should take, must take. But the gravity of his words are belied by the fact our shopping centres are open. Again, a dissonance, and a cacophony of other decisions being made by other States – and other countries.  Tonight, I saw the first of a Victorian ad about the stage one restrictions.

New Zealand late last week implemented and communicated a four stage alert level. It appeals to my emergency management heart, and gives some comfort to me that there is an escalation point.

As our country grapples separately with decisions and NZ reaches stage three and four, my parents in a small country town are separately also holing up.

Without any more information about what’s next, they are staying home, so hopefully they won’t die.

It’s too early to say we are in a world of opportunity.

It’s too early to say I am excited about the opportunity.

It’s too early to say because we have death ahead of us. We have economic pain, family pain, emotional pain and a change in the way of our lives. It’s going to be a certain kind of fear and hell for months. I know that and I feel it. I’m afraid for my family too because mum and dad, many hours away from me, are both in the very at risk category.

But we have ahead of us a change in the way of our lives.

This is a time for innovation. It is a time for healing the world, it is a time for doing things differently because we have to, and doing things differently because we should.

There is no going back. If we can prove that we can work so flexibly under difficult circumstances, if we can prove that we can connect appropriately, maintain connections, grow innovation and start ups, nurture our medical profession, elevate and appreciate our front line cleaners, supermarket workers, aged care carers, enjoy the outdoors differently, if we can prove we can appreciate the climate, strengthen our families, rebuild our economy more sustainably, embrace innovative thinking and make it mainstream, we can be in a better place.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves mean we have an opportunity to understand what is actually important, reconsider or confirm our values and stick to them, love, love, just love.

This weekend I spent time exploring virtual face to face communication tools today to keep in touch. Ended up with a bunny ears and nose and a beer keg hat talking to my friend in Messenger and googling Ewok’s with my 7 year old niece on Skype. ‬

If this situation means that through necessity I find gratitude in what I have and love, in multiple Skype sessions with my 7 and 4 year old nieces, I’ll take it.

As the Victorian Government starts to shut non essential services for our own good, we have a world of fear – and hopefully hope- to get through first.

Is there anything more challenging than leadership in a time of fear?

A leader is only as good as the information and intelligence they are provided; but the way it is conveyed is just as important in building community confidence.

There’s been a lot of talk over the summer of the calm, steady voice of the NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons when he spoke about fire. He knows what he’s talking about and he’s done this for years. About fire, weather, people and NSW. He hasn’t always been so polished in his delivery; he’s worked on his media output, but his authenticity and knowledge has been his staple.

In the face of COVID-19 who is our leader? Who is the voice of reason amongst world leaders, world doctors, national leaders and national doctors, state leaders and state doctors?

As the community variously disintegrates and rallies around itself, the questions they pose are detailed and logical, fear driven, sometimes ridiculous but never able to be ridiculed. If the community does not understand or gets the information from sources that are not as authoritative as they should be, there is a breakdown in our leadership and in the spokespeople we have before us.

Being a good media spokesperson is vital in these times.  You can be a great operational leader but if you fail to communicate it in a way the community and your stakeholders can understand, you have failed in your leadership.

This is a hard truth but in times where media conferences are live streamed, filmed and repeated, cut down for news, run through social media and TV, picked up as news grabs on radio and in print, involve life or death information and an auslan interpreter, this is a key skill.

I’ve seen it done well and supported leaders who get the information they need while making difficult decisions, and convey those decisions and information to community in away that is authentic and clear.

(And answers the actual questions being asked. In this, there is no hiding. )

I’ve seen it done badly, knowing that sometimes as a media adviser there is little other option, and you support and drill as best you can, knowing it’s always too late in the moment; the ability to speak to the community through media needs to be practiced and drilled and practiced again.

Right now as the coronavirus pandemic increases and changes rapidly, with the overwhelming sentiment being confusion and fear, that becomes both a leadership failure and a question of community resilience.

The Australian Chief Medical Officer is being criticised for not being a steady and credible media performer, which in turn possibly unfairly throws doubt on his advice; the Victorian Chief Health Officer is trying to be as open and forward thinking as he can be but is having to operate within a national platform and a voracious community.

In a connected world, we know who else is saying what across the world and the nation, and where there are any discrepancies, people pounce. It’s well known in emergency communications that people will hear a piece of advice, and check with a secondary source – their family, a neighbour, Twitter!

Right now, Australia needs :

  • the right advice and more decisive action based on science and the lessons from countries who have flattened the curve
  • the right information and a central and easy to find place for it in multiple languages
  • the authenticity in our spokespeople
  • trusted third parties and champions all pulling together (including community leaders)
  • the confidence in them and ourselves
  • community planning and resilience
  • the kindness to ourselves and others.

Fear is a monster to combat, and on the back of bushfires in run down and fatigued communities across the nation, it will take a special kind of effort.

We need to know we’ve done all we could when the death tolls mount, and we need to be together during the inconveniences, the fright, the close calls and the recovery.

We’ll learn from this, as I hope, will our leaders.