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, Indonesia - 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.
Be careful out there - there's a smog of misinformation that's fuelling some ghastly symptoms. China is caught up in an outbreak of a new virus and the symptoms being displayed elsewhere in the world are abhorrent. There's a rise in racist attacks, social media is alight with spurious claim and counter claim and 'official channels' are leaving an information vacuum that shortens the incubation period for conspiracy theorists and online trolls.
The main source of information should be the World Health Organisation but their briefings fluctuate from suggesting the situation is dire to suggesting all is contained. Their video on the virus wasn't terribly helpful and, to be fair, I found it to be a poor explanation of the situation that raised more questions than answers - plus it was a very patronising use of a very un-diverse Doodly-esq type video platform. Given the resources available at WHO, I really think they could have done better and should do better.
A global pandemic has been in the top five risks on the Global Risk Index for a number of years now and we've seen SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks since 2000 - so why has the communication around this viral outbreak stalled in such an amateurish way? Leaving questions unanswered creates worry and fear - emotions that are happily pounced on by those who want to further their own xenophobic agenda. WHO states this is a 'novel coronavirus', so it is new, it is relatively early days in the cycle - although the toll for Chinese people has been both considerable and deadly - and they are still piecing together information. All understandable challenges but in communicating the situation, tone should have been addressed as well as content. Tone that demonstrates some compassion for those suffering from the virus. Tone that allays the fears of those who think they might contract the virus and tone that affords some authority to those speaking about the virus.
During our risk and reputation training sessions this month we've tracked the 'spread of information' connected to Novel Coronavirus 2019 and one thing all the workshop participants agreed on was the need to urgently look at their own crisis and risk communication plans.
The other active discussions concerned the societal responsibility of all communicators to allay fears and minimise the chance (risk) of racist attacks. Staying informed, keeping up-to-date with the changing situation so we can advise and communicate risks and issues - all absolutely part of our jobs which, if the last month is anything to go by, are going to get more challenging than ever.
And if you need some help with your risk, reputation and issues management - contact us today and be prepared.
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash
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.