As organisations fight to stay relevant and corporate 'purpose' falls under the microscope, I had the great pleasure and privilege to speak with Toni Muzi Falconi, one of the world's leading public relations professionals, as part of the International FERPI webinar series. We covered organisational purpose, internal communication and the different approaches that have been adopted during the pandemic - a thought provoking conversation which I share with you here.
Unprecedented is a word that's been whipped to death over the last twelve weeks, generally by governments flogging the dead horse of failure as their lame excuse for ineptitude before and during the current pandemic. Unprecedented however, does not excuse unprepared, as it is the duty of all governments to provide and plan for emergencies, protect public health and well-being.
It's a known part of the job. It's the duty of government. It's what they sign up for when they're voted in. When emergencies occur governments must be ready and able to deal with whatever form it takes and it is inexcusable when they don't. There is no excuse good enough to cover the levels of incompetence we've witnessed, particularly when global pandemic has been on the risk index for years.
I found myself questioning whether certain governments around the world should be held accountable on the grounds of criminal negligence, given they've butchered COVID-19 crisis management so badly their people have paid with their lives and livelihoods. I also found myself asking whether charges of criminal negligence could conceivably be extended to include some mainstream media outlets like Fox News in the US or the tabloids in the UK as well as those responsible for communicating government intent.
The definition of criminal negligence varies from country to country but in negligence alone, common factors include a breach of duty which causes the plaintiff to suffer harm. Criminal negligence refers to conduct when a person ignores a known or obvious risk or disregards the safety of others. It involves knowledge of a danger and is more than a mistake or accident.
In the UK, Public Health England declares in its 2020 - 2025 strategic plan that 'our first duty is to keep people safe. Threats from environmental hazards and infectious disease remain great at home and from overseas. We work to prevent risks from materialising and reduce harm when they do. PHE has the capability to respond to emergencies and incidents round the clock, 365 days a year'. Yet in the weeks that have led to 40,000 deaths in the UK (at the time of writing) the politicians were insouciant, dismissive and disdainful of COVID-19 as it began its lethal journey through the kingdom. They were unprepared when they should have been prepared, ignored advice that would have prevented thousands of deaths and continue to offer few solutions or workable strategies to protect their citizens and fulfil their duty as a government. A similar picture has been presented in the USA as the federal government there, led by an obfuscating president, fails in its duty to protect its citizens - the timeline of neglect has been well documented by national and global media outlets and, as with the UK, the daily death toll stands as an indictment of dangerous disregard. Johnson and Trump are not alone - elsewhere in the world, Bolsonaro coughs on his citizens and Belarusian President Lukashenko holds parades to upstage Putin, currently overseeing a Russia where again, citizens are dying in their thousands. Yet, despite the despots, those who actually care - the medical teams, the essential workers, the volunteers, the many brave and wonderful individuals - demonstrate the real meaning of duty as they bring courage and humanity to their work, saving the lives of all around them regardless of the hardship and difficulty they might personally face.
While dictators can lie in their beds and ignore the death and havoc around them, unaccountable to any, there is a chance that the autocrats and the bumblers might be called to account but, supported as they are by pliable mainstream media that push myths and mayhem into the mix, press spokespeople with little understanding of truth or fact, and government communicators who seem to work in apparent contradiction to their published code of conduct, their communications strategies and their duty of care, it is hard to see when anyone might be called to account for the tragedy wrought by their negligence.
Here in New Zealand we've been fortunate to have a government that eschewed strategies that would lead to thousands of deaths and instead, opted to 'go hard and go early' to protect people, work with them to stop transmission of the virus, communicating every step of the way and sticking to the plans. The plans have not been well met by everyone but the success of compassion over chaos sees us moving tentatively towards an easing of restrictions - although acutely aware of entering the 'second wave' danger zone. The government's duty of care and responsibility for the well-being of all New Zealanders was central to its strategy. I, for one, am grateful for their diligence and I weep, helpless, for those who continue to suffer and die because of the negligent.
We're all in this together. That's what we're told. We stay home and listen to the regurgitation of phrases that have slipped uneasily into use - social distancing, bubbles, reducing transmission - there's a lengthy list. As I write, here in New Zealand, we are thirty minutes away from discovering whether we will stay at Level Four Lockdown or transition to Level Three - described as Level Four but with takeaways. Life has changed. We're all in this together - except, we're not. The inequality that exists in systems worldwide means the lockdown experience varies wildly from mild inconvenience to a matter of life or death.
Global leadership too has varied wildly from country to country. Here, we have the relative sanity of Jacinda Ardern and her public health officials, including the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. They communicate well, frequently and clearly. They empathise with the people here, understand the disparity of experience and hardships that ensue. They have done their job - as leaders, they have led, but done so by taking us with them, been part of the collective action rather than imposing instructions. Not everyone is happy, there are still many who balk at the lockdown and I fear all the good work will be undone in thirty minutes if Cabinet caves under pressure from the shouty white male journalists and politicians who seemingly have self-interest at the heart of their existence. They rage mostly in their middle-age spitting fury at boomers and millennials alike but flip-flop daily in their opinions as to the best thing to do. So not all is rosy in this garden but the grass is most definitely greener on our side of the leadership fence.
Overseas, we witness the rambling incoherence of an out-of-control president who apparently has no regard for anyone other than himself - he has that in common with the shouty men here. We see the recovery of bumbling Boris, who saw fit to thank the immigrants (Kiwi included) he said saved his life while he was suffering from COVID-19, brought on by a clinical dose of stupid following his glad-handing of patients and others to prove what a devil-may-care-jolly-good-sort he was. Johnson's convalescence appears to be taking some time and is perhaps an indication of the severity of the disease and the as- yet unresearched and unknown consequences of the illness.
The UK and USA are not alone in their poor leadership and crass management of the pandemic. Brazil, Turkmenistan, Mexico - each have leaders who have positively boiled over with bravado in the face of the virus and now find themselves staring at uncountable deaths and uncomfortable truths. One of the many important questions we have to answer from here onwards is what do we do with leaders who are only interested in power and not people? Extreme political ideology is most frequently used to wield power and control - not provide benefit or fulfil the basic human rights of others.
Jacinda Ardern stands out because she cares. Because she has stated her commitment and responsibility to the well-being of New Zealanders and lives that commitment every day. Emmanuel Macron stands out because he is passionate in his search for equality and the improvement of France and Europe. Angela Merkel - again, a person of integrity who cares deeply and has the intellectual capacity to see a way forward.
Question one for this next era is this - how will we make sure we have leaders who lead, leaders who listen and leaders who will make sure none are left behind as we head towards the new world?
Part of solving that puzzle is making sure leadership communication is at the forefront of any future nominations, appointments or elections. Making sure that even seemingly 'born' leaders are trained in their craft and that those who advise them are of equal skill and ability. Only then will we be able to develop an interdependent society that addresses threats collectively for the betterment of all.
Last outing for a while occurred in Auckland on Tuesday, presenting communications help and guidance as part of a panel for The Alternative Board. The event was designed to help small to medium sized businesses work out how they are going to stay viable and get through the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I was speaking about communication - the need to plan, plan again, act, rethink and then plan again for what will be a very different normal if, as businesses and organisations, we manage to get through to the other side.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Our challenge is to sustain our economic activities - working within official advice, instruction and guidance - so that people have jobs, demand is stimulated when shutdowns and capacity reductions have ceased. The big job as the after-effects move into 2021 will be to rebuild trust - smoothing the confidence curve pictured below - so people are willing to 'begin again', physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Video extract above for your information - if you need help, contact me and we can work out a remote consultation or training session - whatever would help you most. And remember - whenever possible, separate the facts from the fear.
Wherever you are in the world, stay safe, stay informed and stay kind.
Today's World Health Organisation declaration of pandemic changes the game. Life is going to be very different during this pandemic stage and down the track, we'll be viewing life in two separate chunks - pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. Our post-COVID-19 society and economy will look very different.
I've put together the COVID-19 resource for small businesses and solo communicators and you can get that here. It will be updated regularly as situations develop and there's useful information for anyone involved with communications right now.
Another urgency for us isn't just dealing with the situation we are faced with now - we need to look beyond the now and into what will be the 'new normal' in the years ahead.
The 'flatten the curve' graph has been widely shared and illustrates what happens without intevention - flattening the curve helps reduce impact on health services - but there is another curve that needs the attention of those of us outside the health system - the confidence curve. As the pandemic heightens and spreads, confidence and trust in organisations, social and economic systems rapidly diminishes.
We all need to tend to this curve throughout the crisis phase as, without care, it will extend far longer than the pandemic and, together with trust, must be smoothed and sent upwards so when all are well, societies can recover and regroup - albeit in a very different way to the way we've been operating for the best part of a century.
The post-COVID19 world will be very different, challenging and require a lot of work from all of us to create what will essentially be new systems and - hopefully - an improved society.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you stay well, stay informed and stay kind.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.