The PM believes we're “on the road back” – April 21.

23rd April 2020

Article by Peter Mahon | Chief Executive

This is excellent news. There are positive stories coming from the Commonwealth Government and all States about relaxation of some restrictions which the community will welcome. All of the authorities from the Prime Minister down should take great credit for how they have managed COVID-19 to date.

The authorities need to make sure we learn as much as possible from the challenges of communicating the restrictions during the lock down period to have the best chance of successfully communicating during the all important recovery period.

So is there a better way to do it? After 30 plus years in crisis management I have always stood by the maxim that you should never comment on how a crisis is being handled unless you are in the tent.

This time I am going to step over the line, ever so lightly.

I believe now is the time for the Commonwealth Government to take a deep breath, review what has worked and what hasn’t from a community communications point of view thus far since COVID-19 began.

Consideration needs to be given to how strategic communications could be done better during the next critically important recovery phase because there will continue to be ongoing complexities and community confusion if not managed properly which could undo the good work done so far.

As we all know the key players are the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, the National Cabinet designed to ensure a nationally co-ordinated process for managing the crisis, the Federal Treasurer, the Federal Health Minister, Commonwealth Chief Health Officer and his Deputy, Federal Education Minister, six State Premiers and their respective Health Ministers, Chief Health Officers and Deputy Health Officers and Education Members, two Chief Ministers and their Health Ministers and Local Governments throughout Australia together with hundreds of specialist health and economic advisers to each and every one of the above parties.

I list them to demonstrate what an incredible line up of high profile, powerful people who are all inputting to the communications program. Overall they have all done a very good job under very difficult circumstances. But is there a way it can be done better?

It is no wonder given the above number of spokespersons at times confusion has reigned supreme. There has been significant inconsistency of messaging across all levels of Commonwealth, State and Local Government. This has included unclear and contradictory messaging, attempts to communicate illogical decision making and multiple backflips on a regular basis.

For such a massive group of authorities that have never worked together on a crisis of such proportions it is understandable why this inconsistency has occurred. The reasons include the need for speedy responses, the need to address different specific local circumstances, different responsibilities, the inability to gain consensus given local time constraints and differing political imperatives.

At times this has contributed to mass confusion for a general public already traumatised by predictions of death and dire economic consequences of immediate mass unemployment.  At the same time the community is wanting sound, logical, crystal clear and consistent information so that they can understand the details of and rationale behind the decisions being made. Most important of all they have to understand what they are expected to do to help stem the spread of the virus, obey the law and at the same time get on with their own lives in unprecedented circumstances.

All of the above are simply my observations on what has occurred so far.

Questions I would respectfully pose are:

  1. Does the PM and the massive team behind him believe the communications has been well managed so far?
  2. Do they believe during the recovery period communications could be better managed or is that impossible given the complexities of managing the crisis across so many jurisdictions?

If the answer to these two questions is yes then what is a potential way forward?

  1. The PM could create a high level Communications Task Force which commissions a comprehensive review of how comms was managed to date, what worked well and what didn’t.
  2. It could identify what issues emerged and how they were managed.
  3. This would require an immediate and swift audit via interviews with all stakeholders involved in the process including media to obtain feedback and the facts
  4. Community research should be commissioned and access gained to research already conducted.
  5. An extensive study of media coverage generated and the quality and accuracy of it should be conducted to determine how critical key messages from the entire project team were communicated or misinterpreted.
  6. An examination of instances should be conducted where the current operating system failed and more.
  7. The White Paper would make recommendations for consideration and improvement.

And finally it is our strong view that an immediate start should be made now on this process whilst still managing the crisis before the key learnings are forgotten.

That then means that the findings can then be applied to the ultimate Recovery Plan itself.

All of the above are just personal observations and preliminary thoughts. I posted this because I haven’t seen any commentary along these lines and I hope that such a review is already underway in the portals of power.