COVID-19 A Plague of Mixed Messages

By Doug Weller

Not since the Spanish Flu, has the world experienced such an extreme health crisis as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Large-scale crises over the past 100 years have shaken the world. We’ve faced wars, terrorist attacks, stock market crashes, recessions, revolutions, nuclear and natural disasters. Now we face the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and it’s horrendous health and financial consequences.

Mixed messages have confused the public

Online traffic seeking Covid-19 updates has surged as global leaders use the media to reach their target audiences.

Unfortunately, mixed messages have caused uncertainty. People receiving a flood of confusing and conflicting information have acted based on their own interpretations. This meant some were following guidelines, others weren’t.

The last thing you need in a crisis is mixed messages. During the Covid-19 pandemic, mixed message examples are endless.

President Trump contradicted health advice

As worldwide debate persisted about the value of wearing face masks, the US government updated its guidelines.

The government recommended people should be “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings”. But President Donald Trump contradicted that advice, announcing it was voluntary and saying, “You do not have to do it…I don’t think I’m going to be doing it”.

So the message is…?

School messages confused parents

In some cases, mixed messaging has been understandable. Australian schools are a good example.

Schools across the country have delivered various messages because of their different situations and jurisdictions.

Some schools closed while others remained open.

The ABC’s Australian Story ‘One day at a time’, included these three back to back comments demonstrating mixed school messages:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison,
“Children should go to school tomorrow”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian,
“We will be encouraging parents to keep their children at home”

A parent,
“Should I listen to the principal here, or the Premier? The Prime Minister? Who?

Too many mixed messages confused parents.

Maybe the better message from spokespeople outside the schools would be, “Every school is different. All schools are in contact with their Education Departments. Contact your school and follow their recommendations.”

Social distancing messages were open to interpretation

The messages around ‘social distancing’ were initially unclear and not well managed, resulting in people making their own assumptions and acting accordingly.

When it was announced that no more than 500 people could gather in outdoor spaces and individuals must keep 1.5 metres apart, crowds still turned up to Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. Many beach goers carried on as normal and it became a global news story. To stop Covid-19 spreading, Bondi Beach closed.

Rules for other Australian beaches remained confusing.

Sydney Morning Herald Writer, Kasey Edwards, went for a stroll on a Melbourne beach after checking local guidelines. She was shocked when police approached her during her walk. They told her the beach was closed and she must leave.

Kasey said, “The messages from the different levels of government – even from within the same level of government — are so inconsistent and mind-bogglingly illogical, that even when you try to do the right thing you can’t. I will gladly do the right thing. I just need to know what it is.” She also stated, “if an adult can’t easily follow the hodgepodge, reactionary, contradictory and loop-hole-ridden advice, then how are we supposed to give clear rules to our kids?”

Self isolation guidelines confused doctors

Medical professionals arrived in Australia from a conference and failed to follow self-isolation guidelines.

The doctors later said that there was confusion at the airport. They believed they were following police instructions to go to their homes and self-isolate.

Economic stimulus information confused small business

There was misunderstanding about the Federal Government’s stimulus packages, including what is available and who can receive it.

The $130 billion Jobkeeper scheme is a good example.

The Prime Minister’s media release stated, “Eligible employers will be those with annual turnover of less than $1 billion who self-assess that have a reduction in revenue of 30 per cent or more, since 1 March 2020 over a minimum one-month period.”

What is ‘self-assess’? How does it work?

Which 1-month period?

The Jobkeeper criteria baffled small business, forcing the Government to clarify.

So, who is handling the Covid-19 crisis messaging well?

ABC health reporter Dr Normal Swan has been terrific when delivering clear information about this fast-moving story.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Brett Sutton’s concise understandable message delivery during the early stages of the crisis is another excellent example.

Australian immunologist, Peter Doherty, should get an award for explaining complex medical language in simple terms. He nails it in this article as he’s been doing since day one of this crisis.

Clarity and guidance are needed

The public and businesses around the world are relying on their governments and leaders for guidance during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The confusion media messages have caused during this crisis is an important reminder for communications professionals and leaders, to deliver clear messages from the outset.

So, what can we all learn about crisis messaging from Covid-19?

Prepare media messages before a crisis hits. The more prepared you are for a possible crisis, the better.

Create clear, concise media messages that you can easily adjust prior to release.

Where possible, try to remove the need for later clarification, even if it means delaying the initial release.

In a crisis like Covid-19 where everyone needs to understand instructions, ensure media messages are clear, concise and jargon free.

Test media messages on an audience outside your area of expertise. Do they understand? If not, adjust the messages.

Don’t risk losing your audience’s trust with mixed messages.

Remember that unclear media messages could hinder or destroy your desired outcome and damage your credibility.

Very important! Try to stick to one media spokesperson. If there is more than one, everyone needs to be delivering the same messages.

Information Only

Any information presented on our website is general. It is not a substitute for professional advice.

Further Assistance

To get the most from your media opportunities and avoid the danger zones, contact Corporate Media Services for more information about our training programs and media consultancy.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, all Corporate Media Services training courses are currently conducted online.

For information and bookings please call 1300 737 913 or Director Doug Weller 0412 298905.

When a Crisis Hits – What to say and how to say it

By Doug Weller

Crisis communications planning should happen well before an organisational crisis occurs.

Schools, for example, face a myriad of headline grabbing issues on a regular basis.

Headlines about bullying, hazing and drugs are bad enough, but news of school shootings are now all too common.

When I’m reading and watching these news stories, obviously my heart goes out to the victims and others involved – but also, I can’t help but think about what’s going on for the reporters and the school as they deal with the situation, especially when kids have been injured or killed.

During a situation like this, the pressure on news editors to get information from journos on the ground is immense. That means the school is under pressure to make comment whilst dealing with an intense situation.

You can debate the ethics endlessly.

Should journalists be seeking comment from people under such difficult circumstances?

How do you report such a story and what photos and vision do you show?

But any shooting or incident involving injuries or death is a major news story.

It’s the job of a journalist to cover it the best they can.

As I watched the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, I thought of the teachers and students going about their day, only to have it shattered in a split second.

It would be chaos as emergency services arrive and parents rush to the scene, desperate for information. Adding to the bedlam media crews would be everywhere.

During the Florida incident, and similar incidents, the school would have media wanting comment from staff who probably don’t have all the details. On top of that, everyone’s emotions would be running high.

Schools, like any organisations, can be hit by a crisis at any time. I’ve worked with many schools to prepare them to deal with media during crisis situations.

With so many competing demands, how do they respond to media under extreme pressure, quickly and professionally?

In many ways the media can be your best friend during a crisis, at a school or anywhere else.

Traditional and social media can be used to get messages out to parents and other stakeholders very quickly, if you are organised and realistic about what you can achieve during this time.

Confirmation that something has occurred, and that it’s being dealt with is better than silence.

Then as the details become available, updates can be delivered.

The idea of walking up to a media scrum during a crisis can be confronting.

But journalists can be helpful and sympathetic, especially in the early stages of a crisis.

While they prefer to get information from a trusted source, such as the leadership and emergency service personnel, they’ll take whatever information they can get.

Journalists at the scene are under enormous pressure to get something – anything.

Crisis Communications

Would a school Principal or CEO have time to deliver comment to waiting media while having to deal with hundreds of concerned parents, staff, other stakeholders and emergency services personnel? Probably not.

You must avoid situations where the media is desperate for comment but you’re too busy to speak.

That’s why designated media spokespeople should be ready and a crisis communications plan prepared.

If a crisis communications plan exists, it should be realistic and regularly updated. The plan should be clear and concise, not a two-inch-thick book of complex protocols.

Every organisation should prepare a response before a crisis hits.

They should have media spokespeople already trained to deal with the media; and ready to act during high pressure situations.

A spokesperson should be a confident speaker who isn’t going to be busy with other issues.

Key messages for different potential scenarios can be worked out ahead of time. This can take the pressure off the media spokespeople as they prepare to front the media during a crisis.

Would the senior person in your organisation have time to deal with the media if you faced a crisis?

Information Only

Any information presented on our website is of a general nature only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.

Further Assistance

If you want to know more about how Corporate Media Services’ training programs can help you make the most of your media opportunities and avoid the danger zones, contact Corporate Media Services for more information.



Sun Sentinel