The politicians’ response to Australia’s bushfires remind us that despite the sophistication of modern media operations our leaders are vulnerable to cocking up communications just when we are relying on them to be on their game.
Communications is one of the Attention Economy’s dark arts. But time and time again, our leaders, who lack no support in this area, fall prey to making some of the most basic communication mistakes.
At Political Central, we saw the usual mixed bag of approaches and communication performances. Some leaders, such as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews understood what was required of him. Others, notably Prime Minister Scott Morrison, were slow to step up to the plate.
That has been well raked over, but it’s worth reiterating six principles of crisis communications.
The tone of messaging in crisis comms is nuanced. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
1. People want information
Facts. What’s happening, where is it happening, what do I need to do? Simple, unadulterated information.
Disseminating this information is easier said than done when you’ve got a catastrophe unfolding across a vast country like Australia, plus an array of authorities and agencies involved. The aim ought to be to coordinate the big messages at a national level, and to deliver those quickly and effectively.
Distributing emergency information is not unlike what firefighters require on the frontline. The fireys need access to water, trucks, hoses and clear roads to get to where they need to be. Similarly, communicators need the right information, equipment and pathways to get their critical messages to citizens.
In emergencies, we want those with the most authoritative information to be able to pump their comms directly and quickly to audiences. (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation and social media have played a life-saving role in this regard.)
2. Leaders must get out front
In times of crisis, we want leaders to be just that. To get out front and to tell us how it is in an unadulterated way. To tell us what we need to know. To be transparent about what they don’t know. To warn us or to reassure us depending on the situation.
It was surprising that some of our politicians failed to weigh the severity of the situation and stuck to their summer plans. And I’m not just talking about the PM.
But what we learn from history is that, well, we don’t learn from history.
>> FREE CHAPTER FROM THE DIY NEWSROOM: Below, read about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Newsrooms, including their inherent readiness in times of crisis.
3. Even amid crisis, there’s time to plan
Unless there’s an incoming missile, you can do more than just react. And if we fail to plan we plan to fail - one of the 7 Titanic Mistakes of Communications.
The bigger the problem the more strategic you need to be.
My advice? Get the smartest people in the war room. But go out of your way to listen to the quietest. In a crisis, you want to lean on those who are the most measured and most sensible. That’s certainly been my experience in newsrooms which are structurally “organised for chaos”.
Being strategic means assessing and agreeing what you’ll say, when you’ll say it and how you’ll say it. Then reviewing this as required - perhaps hourly. At a practical level, someone needs to handle the admin to ensure everyone who needs to know the messaging understands and follows suit. Never assume.
The tone of messaging is a nuanced aspect of crisis communications. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
Even at the highest level in the biggest crisis, it’s really just a simple checklist of the basics, and then decomposing it from there. Of course, much of this work can be done in advance through contingency planning. You’ve done that, huh?
The rightful place for comms professionals in a crisis is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
4. Common sense is not common. Tap the experts.
Just when you need them the most, communications teams can be shut down by leaders who reckon they know better.
I think of Bob Hawke and John Howard as leaders who had an uncanny ability to read the public mood. But they were known to be good listeners and were not arrogant enough to still take on board what the experts around them had to offer.
How often, though, do we see CEOs and leaders go out on their own, or go off script, and it ends up as the predictable train crash?
The boss carries the can and should have the final say. But first they need to understand they have a duty (if only to themselves) to canvass the subject matter experts around them and to evaluate the advice before exercising, hopefully, astute judgement.
Hindsight is generally pretty useless. That said ...
5. When all else fails, there is Comms 2.0
When the boss or your department has stuffed it up right royally, you can still recover some dignity and respect, perhaps even reclaim a political point or two. Apologise. Do it quickly. Make it authentic. Do it on a platform and to an audience that matters. There’s great value in stopping to listen in a crisis too, which can then shape future empathetic communications.
Audiences are willing to forgive even if they won’t forget your epic comms fail. Today, however, comms folk have to accept that haters on social media will keep on hating whatever you do. They’re hardly worth engaging with depending on their influence on your core constituency. Usually, they are just the squeaky wheel and preaching to their own gaggle of grumpsters.
6. Be authentic.
All communications serve to support a greater story. Your media release, social media post or video might have a specific purpose, but when you step back you’ll see that each comms is part of a bigger narrative or context. It’s why authenticity matters, and old-school spin and PR does not work now.
That’s the exciting part of working in communications today because it is far less about sugar-coating the unpalatable and more about real storytelling.
Indeed, with so much at stake in a crisis, the rightful place for communications professionals is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
* Stuart Howie is the executive director of Flame Tree Media, a Canberra-based communications consultancy. Stuart is author of The DIY Newsroom, which was named Social Media and Technology Book of the Year at the 2019 Australian Business Book Awards.
The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
Life in the ol' girl yet as Australian regional titles sold for $115m to Antony Catalano, private equity
The sale of Australian Community Media, with 160-plus regional and rural titles, to real estate marketing guru Antony Catalano is likely to usher in more promising times for newspapers across the expansive continent.
Despite everyone writing off newspapers, including the very bosses who have run some of them, there’s life in the ol’ girl yet.
Catalano, backed by Aussie billionaire Alex Waislitz's Thorney Investments, picked up the massive regional stable for the bargain basement price of $115 million.
Among the titles bringing home the bacon are the Newcastle Herald, The Canberra Times and the often ignored agriculture bible, The Land. These titles with a handful of other daily titles rake in most of the revenue for ACM, formerly Fairfax Regional Media.
Thereafter is a very long tail of lesser titles, many weeklies and bi-weeklies, that seek to serve their disparate communities the best they can with minimal resources.
Not too long ago, some of those big titles alone could have reaped as much as the sum total for the entire regional empire now to be transacted.
The sale tells us quite a bit about the state of print in this country, but let me zone on three insights.
It was a bold enough statement for me to take note - and to recount now more than 20 years on.
While on a study tour of the US in 1996, I was talking to a senior media executive in Chicago who emphatically declared, without a hint of self doubt: “In 10 to 15 years, people will look at a newspaper and laugh”.
Sure enough it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but print still matters - not just to news folk but also to those in the communications business finessing their media ecosystems.
Local government is the poster child for a sector hiding its light under a bushel – and it’s time for it to shine.
Many residents and ratepayers rate their councils lowly. We know that because even the councils say it.
I have checked in on some of the community engagement statistics for various councils, and there is nothing to write home about.
When someone signs up to your email newsletter regard it as one of the biggest compliments you will receive in business.
But watch out, winning people’s trust and business via email is getting harder.
Greater regulation, concerns about privacy and our frenetic Attention Economy means you will need to deploy all your communications nous to cut through the media noise.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media and is the author of The DIY Newsroom. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.