April 7, 2020

Crisis communications

My daily walk along the Wellington waterfront (yes, my backyard) has become akin to what it was like walking down Lambton Quay in pre COVID-19 times. And I have never been so pleased to see a familiar friendly face, albeit at a distance.

Of course, I have used these brief and often ‘shouty’ encounters to ask how people are but also to ask them what they think of the government’s COVID-19 response.

It will be no surprise that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In years to come the response to Covid-19 will be the subject of numerous weighty academic tomes, and will no doubt be used to illustrate the ins and outs of crisis communications.

Regular communications and consistent messaging
Regular communications and consistent messaging are the two key things and everyone in communications knows it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  We are now seeing for ourselves how effective it can be. Who would have thought that the theme music for Emmerdale Farm at 12.59pm each day on TV One, would become so distinctive as we await the 1pm Live telecast to start? “Bubbles” congregate around the telly with sandwich in hand to hear the latest at 1pm every day.  And we are hanging off every word from the Director General Dr Ashley Bloomfield or the Prime Minister, or both, looking for signs of when we might move out of Level 4 and hoping that no one else has died.

One source of truth
Limiting the number of spokespeople giving us the updates has also made a huge difference.  One source of truth from subject matter experts is important and Dr Bloomfield makes it look so simple. The format is clear, he is unflappable, he has the facts at his finger-tips, and in the rare event that he cannot answer a question, he undertakes to find out.  I can only imagine what is going on behind the scenes to provide him with the necessary information and the preparation that is going on to anticipate what the questions might be on any given day. We must take our hats off to the armies of public servants, and not just in the communications teams, who are working tirelessly to provide us with reassurance, and confidence that the information we are getting is accurate and that there is complete transparency.

It is still a very difficult time as our homes become our offices, the supermarkets become a place to avoid, people we know lose their jobs and we pontificate about what post COVID-19 New Zealand looks like.

For now, at least, the regular flow of easy-to-digest information gives us some comfort.