We have all watched in horror over the past few weeks as the south-east coast of Australia burned. For those of us that were holidaying down there in Jarvis Bay, we initially joked it was like armageddon. For those further south in New South Wales and into Victoria it literally was. The sky turned black during the day, the smoke choked, hundreds of houses burned to the ground, and people died.
The bushfire crisis that we are still enduring brought out the best in our community spirit. #slabsforheroes in Canberra had sent more than 70 tonnes of supplies to the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades (RFS), and emergency evacuation centres in the South Coast. Celeste Barber had raised over $32 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades (RFS) and it continues to increase. Everyone I know is doing or contributing what they can to help.
One of the things that has been at the forefront of the media coverage during this crisis, is the public criticism of the Commonwealth Government. Let me be clear this is not a political post. I am not going to comment on whether the Prime Minister should be removed or whether climate change is real (which it is) – it’s just not that type of post. I wanted to look at how the Prime Minister and the Government more generally handled this crisis from a public relations point of view.
During a crisis, there are four key rules for communicating with the public:
- Respond quickly.
- Take responsibility.
- Be candid, transparent, and honest in your communication.
- Show empathy and compassion.
At a very high level, I thought I would share from my perspective how the Government has managed each of these ‘rules’ during this crisis. This was a hard article to write, as this is an ongoing story and every day there is something new that I could add. For now, I have just included one or two examples below, not a timeline of what has happened. I am sure there are many vital things that I have missed.
The Prime Minister went on a little trip just before Christmas that we don’t need to relive, needless to say, #WheresScotty and #wherethebloodyhellareyou was trending on social media at the end of December.
The critical time after a crisis is the first 24 hours. Yet throughout this crisis, the Government seems to be days behind the public sentiment. After the firestorm hit on New Year’s Eve, it was two or three days before the Prime Minister visited the most impacted areas repeatedly stating this was a “state issue” for Victoria and New South Wales. Announcements about funding also appeared to be slow including the $6000 payment for volunteer firefighters in New South Wales on 29 December and recalling defence force reservists in to support the RFS and Country Fire Service (CFS) in Victoria on 5 January.
I am sure a lot of work was happening behind the scenes, but publicly the delay gave the impression that the Government was responding to what the public was demanding rather than leading the response to this crisis.
No one is responsible for a bush fire, but you can stand up and take responsibility for supporting the community and the recovery. Many would argue that the Governments’ lack of action on climate change is responsible, but that’s not what people on the ground need right now. What those impacted by the fires need is someone to take responsibility for what is next. During a crisis, you either need to fess up to what you didn’t do or take control of the action that will be taken.
Today (6 January), the Prime Minister has announced a new agency is being established to manage the bushfire recovery. A great step in showing responsibility but was the announcement too late?
Be candid, transparent, and honest in your communication
There are several ways that you can be transparent and honest in communicating your actions during a crisis. One way is to put out a social media video explicitly promoting everything you’re doing. It’s one way to do it. It is what the government did. You can understand the approach. You are in a panic about the sustained public criticism that your Government isn’t doing enough, so you neatly package all of your actions into a nice, short video with some upbeat music. However, again the Government misread the public sentiment. What was needed was real, authentic leadership with a person telling them what is happening and why it was going to make a difference. The video quickly received significant criticism in social and traditional media.
Show empathy and compassion
Watching the Prime Minister interact with firefighters and victims of the bushfire in the immediate aftermath has been awkward at best. I think by now everyone has seen the handshaking debacle when the Prime Minister visited the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo. It was a clear demonstration of a lack of empathy and poor handling of a difficult situation. Instead of coping the anger of people who had been through a trauma and asking, “how can I help?” he walked away. I think this was the hardest bit for me to watch.
He also made some interesting communications choices like telling Australians on New Year’s Eve that we live in the ‘most amazing country on earth’ while the bush fires raged and having a media event with the Australian Cricket team on New Years Day.
What should the Government have done?
We are not the first country to face a crisis, and many governments have been criticised about their handling before. The local, state and federal government in the United States was widely criticised for its delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A court in Japan ruled that negligence by the government contributed to the triple meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011. The Indonesian Government was globally criticised for allowing tsunami sensors to fall into disrepair at the time of the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi Provence in 2018.
One leader who was not condemned but praised after a crisis was Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
In March 2018, two consecutive terrorist attacks occurred at mosques in Christchurch, during Friday Prayer killing 51 and injuring 49. Ms Ardern was globally seen as the face of the crisis. She showed compassion and strength during a difficult time. She followed through in rhetoric and action. She immediately decried the white-nationalist ideology that fuelled the massacre and spoke firmly for what she believed were her country’s values. She announced plans to change New Zealand’s gun laws “within ten days of this horrific act of terrorism” – clear, timely action. In short, she showed leadership.
As I write, the Government is still scrambling to manage this crisis as it drags into its third month. If the government is going to turn this crisis around, I suggest they start asking “What would Jacinda do?”.