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.
I've started another blog as part of a training and development undertaking for a client and this week I addressed the lack of leadership and sheer disregard for an emergency situation demonstrated by Australia's leader Scott Morrison.
As Australia burns, he's been off on holiday, reluctantly returning only under media pressure, then off hosting the cricket instead of addressing the out-of-control blazes destroying lives and property - seemingly oblivious to the needs and situation of the thousands of Australians caught in the middle of this horrendous disaster.
I wrote last year about the need for compassion in leadership. Tragically, such compassion appears to be sadly lacking in any of the actions presented by Morrison.
The letter is here if you fancy a read but as an example of how not to manage or lead in a crisis Scott Morrison will be cited as an example for decades to come. And if you find yourself working with a leader like Scott Morrison who is evidently struggling with their role - call me, I'd be delighted to help you develop their understanding as to society and stakeholder expectations and what they need to do, rather than what they need to say. Actions always, always speak louder than words.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
Parliament is suspended in the UK. A communications staffer is marched from Downing Street under police escort. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn is harangued in Parliamentary corridors. Tory MPs who voted with the opposition are sacked. The unravelling - the loss of a system's licence to operate - has begun. And begun quite deliberately.
Power has been put ahead of people and functional relationships are a thing of the past as autocracy replaces public accountability in the UK. Observing all the strands of disfunction being pulled together it seems evident that the next move will be to encourage further dissension on the streets so that 'emergency powers' can be implemented and, at that point, we can probably declare UK democracy dead as Cummings pushes the UK's countries towards uncivil war and the system breakdown he seems to desire.
It has nothing to do with Brexit - that is simply a convenient scapegoat for years of austerity and poor government. It is instead a screen for Cummings and Co to manipulate an election so they can secure power for the few and misery for the many.
Aside from the difficulties the country faces, the current situation, stoked and fuelled a select group of mainstream media moguls already proven to wield too much power and influence, will put communications practitioners within UK's government in a very difficult position. The electioneering has already begun judging from the tweets, updates and photo ops coming out of No. 10 so the communications teams will be faced with some tough choices in the shutdown period - is the material campaign material or government communications, the latter being a valid use of their time. It's going to get a whole lot messier in the next few weeks.
A month in to Dominic Cummings reign as chief aid to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chaos is beginning to boil over.
In his blog, Cummings regularly records his desire to break systems, quoting military philosophy as justification for his arguments. His aim, it seems, is to break a system he dislikes and despises and, it would seem, he happily uses any means to achieve his aims.
This is not a political blog. It is one concerned with public relations and communication - the building of relationships that give organisations their licence to operate supported by effective communication, knowledge, understanding and ethical behaviour. In the video below, Cummings explains at the 2017 Ogilvy Nudgestock conference the methods employed to achieve a win in the UK referendum concerning participation in the EU - known now as the Brexit Referendum. If, as I am, you are involved in public relations and communication, then I'd urge you to watch the whole thing so you can understand the deliberate, planned and blatant behavioural manipulation that is in progress right now, working towards a complete system breakdown of benefit only to its perpetrators.
In the video, Cummings takes you through the tricks and tactics he deployed in order to - in his own words at various points in the presentation - 'provoke rage...neutralise...put the boot in'. The seven million people exposed to the 1.5bn targeted ads over the short period of time pre-referendum is peanuts compared to what's ahead in the UK - and other countries around the world - as elections, media, citizens, public psychology and governing systems are blatantly manipulated for private gain. Cummings' work appears to be a (pseudo) intellectual exercise centred on ways to break the system he reviles.
What's going on today behind the doors of 10 Downing Street has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of being in or out of Europe. It has nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of the UK population. It has everything to do with the selfish and power-hungry wanting their own way, shamelessly stoking division and hatred and using unethical and underhand practices to do so
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
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.