Gladys quitting daily conferences is yet another COVID-19 communications fail

The decision to step back from the daily COVID-19 presser is a step back for clear communication, writes Pure Public Relations founder, Phoebe Netto.

This moment was always going to come. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was always going to have to call our anxiety-laden daily lockdown ritual – otherwise known as the 11am press conference – to a close. But just as we’re about to hit the highest number of cases yet? It’s simply not the right time.

We’ve all been conditioned to listen to this 11am briefer, not because we’re bored, but because what’s announced has a great impact on our daily lives. The longer lockdown continues, our daily habit has shown no sign of abating, with viewing figures repeatedly spiking at 11 am on the dot.

People are not just watching the 11am conference for the numbers. They’re watching to try and see if there is going to be further clarity about how their lives are going to change: what does it mean for my business, for my family, for future plans? How will my day-to-day life be impacted? We’re hanging on every word to try and find out what’s next for our lives. We need more clarity around certain changes to the rules, including what the upcoming vaccine passport rollout will look like. Businesses need time to understand, plan, and implement these impending changes.

Now is not the time to cut off communication. Case numbers are expected to hit their peak over the next few weeks, with hospitals and ICU wards beginning to show signs of struggle. When coupled with the heated questions about the ongoing commission investigations into Berejiklian’s former boyfriend Daryl Maguire, it’s easy to feel like Berejiklian is going into hiding. While I personally don’t believe that’s the case, the fact is, she has not communicated otherwise.

All along, much of the information shared in the daily 11am press conferences, could have been delivered in fact sheets, media releases, and written talking points. But what a press conference brings is the reassurance that can come when a leader delivers the information directly to camera, is willing to answer (some) questions, the perception of some accountability, and the opportunity to deliver hard news with compassion that cannot otherwise be conveyed. And really, these are the elements of any good issues management communication.

We still need a human face and a leader that can bring us through the next few weeks and months, which we’ve already been told are going to be the very worst so far for both case numbers and deaths.

Berejiklian has explained that it’s time to shift our mindset from lockdowns and restrictions to living with the virus. With case numbers set to skyrocket and the 70% and 80% vaccine targets still quite a way off, this reasoning feels a few months premature. And to readjust, we want to look to a leader to ease us into that change, not drop off and leave us with NSW Health videos in her place.

She should be there with us when the horrible numbers are announced. We need to be reassured that there are effective plans in place to get us through the worst. We need more than a daily New South Wales health announcement video to provide that reassurance.

As a nation, we’re facing a great deal of uncertainty. We’re all feeling raw, frustrated, and hopeless. With all of these negative emotions running through us, we are looking for A) someone to blame, B) an outlet for our questions and frustrations to be shared (at least via the journalists who try to present our concerns and queries to leadership), and C) someone to someone to lead us through this.

Berejiklian had a chance to become that very leader, but by choosing to cut off communication, she has put herself squarely in the ‘to blame’ category.

When announcing her decision to bin the daily conference, Berejiklian said: “I need to make sure we have a good balance and we live with COVID and I am accountable every day.” ‘Accountable’ is the right sentiment, but it’s overshadowed by the fact that the decision to quit daily conferences feels like the very opposite of holding yourself accountable.

Too much has been left open to interpretation. Berejiklian has said she will conduct press conferences ‘when appropriate’ – but what does that actually mean? Berejiklian no longer has enough trust and goodwill for us to trust her to decide what is an ‘appropriate’ time to hold a conference.

Even the communication around the ending of the daily press conferences has in itself been incredibly confusing. With so much being written over the weekend about her decision to quit, Berejiklian was forced to clarify during Monday’s press conference that the press conferences really were going to stop. It’s all become very meta.

Why suddenly cut to almost zero? Why not once or twice a week? Why not gradually wean us off slowly? There are a whole range of options for Berejiklian to consider, from weekly online Q&As to having different high-ranking leaders to front the conferences. Even just a slow reduction, with clear reminders about how the time was being better spent, would be better than this sudden change.

Pulling the press conference away leaves no one but the media, family and friends, and Twitter to attempt to answer our burning questions. The job of a comms person to then try and correct and undo this, is one I don’t envy. There’s no doubt that the void it’s left will be filled with sensationalism, catastrophising, and misinformation. And with a mental health crisis slowly bubbling away beneath the surface, that’s the last thing any of us need.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.


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