Head to Head: Has Scott Morrison’s communication throughout the COVID-19 crisis been up to scratch?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Jennifer Kirk, associate director at Cannings Purple, and Pure Public Relations' Phoebe Netto go head to head on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's communications throughout the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has brought Australia to a standstill, and the nation’s leaders have come under intense scrutiny.

Scott Morrison has overseen a $30m coronavirus education campaign, economic stimulus packages and on-air arguments with journalists during tense press conferences. So, has his communication been up to scratch?

Jennifer Kirk, associate director at Cannings Purple, which has a bipartisan government relations arm, argues that Morrison’s consistent and recurring press conferences and adoption of digital channels have successfully positioned him and chief medical officer Brendan Murphy as authorities on the crisis.

However, founder of Pure Public Relations, Phoebe Netto, argues that while Morrison’s communication has improved since the crisis started, he has fallen short of convincing the public and rebuilding the trust that was lost during the bushfire crisis.

Has Scott Morrison’s communication throughout the COVID-19 crisis been up to scratch?

Jennifer Kirk, associate director at Cannings Purple, argues ‘Yes’:

“In the early stages of this crisis, many Australians were confused. We were frustrated at delayed and inconsistent communications and wanted greater clarity from our political leaders.

“Despite some initial stumbles, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stepped up and is now delivering the clear messages needed to gain cut through in a crisis.

“In recent weeks he has presented as a straight-talking leader and his calls for urgent and direct action are increasingly well understood by all Australians.

“He has provided an important sense of consistency by holding regular press conferences to update the nation directly. His announcements on the major stimulus and safety net packages, and public health precautions have been clear, detailed and decisive.

“By adopting a welcome bipartisan approach to the wage subsidy package and convening a National Cabinet, he has also sent a strong message to Australians that the nation is united and we are all working together to tackle this crisis.

“Importantly, the Prime Minister has demonstrated that the Government’s focus is on saving lives as well as livelihoods, regularly delivering his addresses with chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, who is now identifiable as the public face of the health sector leading the charge in the war against COVID-19.

“He’s also acknowledged what we in the PR industry have known for a long time – more than half the population don’t consume mainstream media. The use of digital channels, such as the COVID app (and WhatsApp) have ensured these communications are reaching the public and keeping them up to date.

“We do need to acknowledge these are unprecedented times – our leaders are sleep deprived and working on adrenaline induced by a once-in-a century global health pandemic.

“Scott Morrison’s political legacy will no doubt be shaped by how he leads our national response – how we flatten the curve to save lives and how we maintain a functioning economy. However, within the drivers that he can control, I believe our Prime Minister has done something we would have considered highly improbable two months ago: he has emerged as a unifying national political figure.”

Phoebe Netto, founder of Pure Public Relations, argues ‘No’:

“‘Because I said so’ is a tactic that might work for some parents, but it’s certainly not the way to run a country in 2020. In a time of uncertainty and unpredictability, the Australian people are not prepared to go along with what their leaders say unless they have been convinced it is the right approach. So much of the anxiety is coming from a fear of what we don’t know, including how the crisis is being handled and what’s next.

“A lack of clear communication is met with assumptions and loud opinions, and this feeds fear. And with so much information at our fingertips (accurate, helpful or not), the loudest voice or most convincing argument wins – not who has the highest authority. This means leaders need to match very clear instruction, with strong arguments that anticipate questions and concerns and address them early, with facts and compassion.

“This is not a time for repeating sound bites – it is a time to inform. Instead, we have been overwhelmed with confusion – for example, exceptions to rules lead to personal interpretation and confusion. Blanket rules are easier to communicate and easier for everyone to understand.

“The government has taken some steps in the right direction with its communication, but it hasn’t been successful enough in the execution of these tactics. Scott Morrison’s communication style, handling of questions, and messaging have improved since the beginning of the crisis, but there’s been frustration and major damage to trust to get to this point of gradual improvement.

“Trust is already at a low in Australia, thanks to the government’s less than-ideal handling of the recent bushfire crisis. In order to rebuild confidence, the country needs its leader to give clarity and reassurance rather than ambiguity, dismissive comments and inconsistent behaviour. All this does is make the work of the government even harder (and I cannot imagine just how hard it is for them), which, in a time of crisis, is the last thing anyone wants.”

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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