COVID Impact: Government Communications.
This week may be the worst one yet for the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.. Public health officials are warning that loss of life and economic instability will continue despite governmental health care and financial efforts, including a record-breaking federal stimulus package and upticks in medical supply production. Unemployment filings are increasing exponentially, breaking records and challenging leaders to rebuild our financial system. Those trends are echoed across the globe as world leaders work to determine their countries’ approach to the looming financial crisis. So what can we learn when we turn to the world’s governments? For one government in particular, the United Kingdom’s, shutting down nonessential businesses was one of the more aggressive actions in stopping the spread. In steps prior, such as social distancing or encouraged telework for service-oriented industries, businesses really weren’t mentioned as a key factor in protecting public health. “We will immediately close all shops selling non-essential goods, such as clothing or electronics, and other premises.” – Prime Minister Johnson, March 23 News Conference As a result of PM Johnson’s announcement, many businesses in the “non-essential” category panicked and fought to be considered otherwise. Sports Direct, a sportswear retailer, argued that it was, “uniquely well placed to help keep the UK as fit and healthy as possible.” A day later, after backlash from consumers and government officials, the company announced its temporary closure. For others, the lack of specificity led to genuine confusion and concern, causing potentially unsafe conditions for workers and customers alike as stores remained open when they should have closed. The vague announcement caused millions of citizens to question whether they would have a job the next day and drove businesses to further tighten their belts for an unknown—and ill-communicated—future. However, the failure was ultimately caused by both sides. Immediately after the announcement, industry leaders called for the government to refine its statements, publicly undermining its response, and muddying the clarity of finalized policies. Both industry and government are working from untested playbooks, and the back-and-forth is making it abundantly clear. In the United States, amid partisan arm wrestling, perceptions of our economic and health response vary wildly depending on where you get your news. The U.S. Federal Government, however, has done an awful job communicating their recovery plan for COVID-19 and what role businesses will play. To begin with, the Trump Administration notoriously downplayed the virus for weeks as other countries moved to respond quickly and decisively. “We’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down, not up… As they get better, we take them off the list, so that we’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time.” – President Trump, February 26 News Conference While public health officials started ringing the alarms, some financial institutions sent communications asking Americans to have confidence in the economy and continue investing. State level communications differed like night and day depending on who is in the governors’ mansion. Governors Newsom (D-CA) and Hogan (R-MD) were quick to respond to COVID-19 and served as role models for other states. This morning, I have enacted an executive order, which closes all nonessential businesses, organizations, establishments and facilities in Maryland… In addition to those businesses, which have already been closed by our prior executive orders, this new executive order closes all those businesses not covered by federal guidelines, which were issued Thursday by the federal government as defined as critical infrastructure sectors. Including healthcare and food and agriculture, energy, public works, community-based government operations and the defense and industrial-base sectors, law enforcement, public safety, transportation, critical manufacturing, financial services and water and waste water. – Gov. Hogan, March 23 News Conference After delivering a clear, concise, and consistent message, Gov. Hogan’s office quickly published content on what qualifies as an “essential” business, even before the news conference had ended. In sharp contrast, Governor Brian Kemp (R-GA) only learned last week that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, and established a shelter-in-place order a day later. The U.S. government as a whole has to learn from other countries about providing a unified response on how to handle COVID-19 in order to best serve their constituents—young, old, Republican, or Democrat. The public affairs industry has a lot to learn from these case studies as professionals who often serve as the connective tissue among policy makers, businesses, and the general public. We’ve seen first hand that governments and businesses are often at odds when bottom lines stand to be affected, and loyal consumers are quick to turn on brands who don’t seem to prioritize public health. Unfortunately, we also cannot be flies on the wall of global situation rooms. So what can we do? We can help our clients further the discussion on COVID-19, and clamor for change, alongside their industry and their corporate peers, in a productive, unified voice. The events of this past month, as every executive, politician, and news outlet in America has noted, are unprecedented. No facet of American life was adequately prepared for the scale and gravity of the situation. In a public health crisis, the onus of responding to that situation squarely falls on the governments’ shoulders, as they have an inalienable responsibility to their citizens. How those governments responded, and how they communicated their needs, their instructions, their triumphs, and their failures, speaks volumes. The success stories have a few key commonalities. Officials were consistent, they maintained identical messaging and guidelines across public comments, press releases, and remarks. They were humble about their success and somber in acknowledging the work to come while deferring to the experts. They owned their capabilities, admitting what they did and did not know, and where they had mistakes. They were empathetic and compassionate toward their citizenry and those affected by COVID-19. These are lessons that everyone, in both the public and private sectors, can learn from.