Coronavirus scott morrison brendan murphy
Scott Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The messaging from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and chief medical officer Brendan Murphy during the coronavirus crisis has been roundly criticised.

Morrison was going to the football, and then he wasn’t, then hand shakes were fine, and then they weren’t. What was meant by “necessary travel”? What remained an “essential job”?

Last Tuesday may have been the nadir. The advice that classrooms, funerals, weddings, hairdressers, outdoor workout groups, all distinct from general “public gatherings”, were each subject to different restrictions caused confusion and criticism.

Elsewhere, the government has been decidedly reluctant to release the information on which they are basing each successive and occasionally contradictory directive to the Australian public. In response, the hashtag #releasethemodelling sprung up.

Political strategist Bruce Hawker says there are a number of rules one had to observe in crisis communication; chiefly clarity in the messaging, and providing information that isn’t open to misinterpretation.

“Further, there should be a single source — say a website — that the government can control,” Hawker told Crikey. “Where people could get the information they needed and know what’s happening and how it affects them.”

He says the communication to the public was improving, albeit belatedly.

“The WhatsApp service is good — it’s probably a bit late to the party, but at least they’ve done it … It’s a central information source the government can control and use to avoid misinformation, and now they need to push it hard.”

Michael Smith of Inside Public Relations — and former editor of The Age –says the prime minister’s messaging was getting through “to most, but not all” people, arguing that the 20 to 35 age group was not engaging.

“He needs to enlist some ambassadors in the celebrity, pop culture, fashion  worlds, the ones who top the Instagram and Twitter charts, to simply post a five-second message ‘Please stay home and save lives’,” he told Crikey.

The real issue, according to Hawker, is the second plank of crisis communication: internal communication.

“Making sure everyone implementing your response has the right information is every bit as important, and that’s where we’ve seen the biggest stuff ups,”he said, citing the lack of communication between the New South Wales Government and Border Force regarding the Ruby Princess and the lack of screening of returning plane passengers from overseas.

“My concern is how much back-filling the government has had to do owing to those early mistakes. They’ve always felt maybe a week behind the game.”

Conflicting messages from state premiers and the federal government didn’t help.

“The national cabinet was supposed to foster a national response, but it showed real signs of dissent early on around very key issues, and that messaging was confusing,” Hawker said. “In a situation like this, those issues really have to be worked out around the table.”

Smith believes the PM and premiers should have a live media conferences at the same time every day “so that listening in becomes part of the daily schedule of the millions of people at home as well as at work”, as is happening in New York.

“In Australia, 8.30am would be a good time, catching breakfast TV and [the] beginning of high-rating radio programs when people are going to work … if a second media conference is necessary, do it during the 6pm evening news bulletins.”

Hawker says an apparent lack of planning had caused many of the early mistakes.

“Pandemic planning is part and parcel of government at all levels. You have to have those tools of communication ready at any given point. And that’s where the planning has really fallen down. I don’t get the sense that there was a team ready, looking at this.”

Hawker uses the example of businesses who prepare websites that they can turn on in the event of a catastrophe, such as an oil spill.

“In fairness, [the government has] done a pretty good job pulling one together quickly, but they should have had it ready.”

Both Smith and Hawker concede this is a once in 100 years crisis, and formulating a clear response was always going to take some time.

“You’ve got to cut the government some slack,” Hawker said. “But not too much, because every day they get the messaging wrong, the virus spreads further and further.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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