This column is an opinion by Sean Mallen, a communications consultant specializing in crisis and the former Queen’s Park correspondent and Europe bureau chief for Global News. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The greatest successes of public health are the ones you never hear about. The flu bug that was not passed on because a sick person stayed in bed rather than going into work. The kids who did not contract measles, thanks to vaccinations.
In no other realm of public policy is effective, credible communication so crucial to our personal wellbeing. If I get the flu shot, thoroughly wash my hands or sneeze into my elbow, it is because someone I trust told me to do so.
As we face a global public health crisis with the coronavirus outbreak, we are seeing both the benefits of straight talk and the perils of self-serving evasiveness. The central tenets of crisis communications are never more pertinent: be truthful, empathetic, clear and responsible.
In Canada, we have been well-served to date, with timely updates and frank, fulsome information about COVID-19. Doctors Theresa Tam federally, David Williams in Ontario, and Eileen de Villa in Toronto have all been calm, clear and credible voices — not minimizing the risks, while also tamping down panic. When B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry choked up during a news conference while speaking about the risks to frail elderly people, her compassion made her all the more believable.
They are worthy successors to the late Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto’s former Medical Officer of Health, whose humanity and common sense were a beacon that I recall vividly from the endless news conferences I covered during the fraught days of the 2003 SARS outbreak.
We can also give good reviews to Canada’s political leaders. After hearing some early criticism for what some believed was a relatively slow evacuation of Canadians from the epicentre in Wuhan, China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has largely left communications to the experts. That is as it should be.
Similarly, both federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and her Ontario counterpart Christine Elliott have been visible, while appropriately deferring to the medical professionals. Having interviewed Elliott many times in my reporting days, I know her to give thoughtful, if not always highly quotable responses to pointed questions — an admirable quality in a public servant, even if it proved to be a political liability when she was running for leader of her party.
While there has been some political sniping, we can appreciate how B.C.’s health minister actually posted a tweet thanking his opposition critics for their support:
I want to again recognize the constructive, thoughtful, helpful approach taken by <a href=”https://twitter.com/NormLetnick?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NormLetnick</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/bcliberals?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@bcliberals</a> Health Critic and <a href=”https://twitter.com/SoniaFurstenau?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SoniaFurstenau</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/BCGreens?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@BCGreens</a> Health critic as we deal as a province with <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID%E3%83%BC19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVIDー19</a>. It is much appreciated and important.
Compare that to the sorry spectacle in the United States.
At a time when credibility and non-partisan collaboration are essential, Americans are stuck with a president who manufactures lies on an industrial scale, who trashes both science and public institutions, and who can turn a game of hopscotch into a Democrat-inspired deep state plot to impugn his greatness.
He deserved to take heat for slashing budgets at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations, hamstringing the very groups that would oversee an epidemic. But he is doing equal if not greater harm with a constant stream of unscientific, and usually dead-wrong pronouncements on the coronavirus.
When he visited the CDC headquarters for a news media event it should have been a sober opportunity for esteemed doctors and scientists to inform the people about a grave public health crisis. Instead, Trump gave it the tone of a campaign stop by wearing his trademark red MAGA cap and trashing the Democratic governor of Washington State as a “snake” for daring to criticize his administration’s response to the outbreak.
So much for bipartisanship in challenging times.
Rather than let the experts lead, the former real estate developer and reality show star mused that he may be an unrecognized scientific savant: “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
He went on to suggest that there were plenty of Covid-19 test kits available, when in fact the shortage of tests is serious issue. His own Vice President, Mike Pence, normally timidly compliant, later admitted there were not enough.
Trump told his advisor, defender and Fox News host Sean Hannity that he had a “hunch” that the mortality rate was actually much lower than the scientists have believed. Science was absent.
No wonder Stephen Colbert lamented: “we’re definitely all going to die.”
Meanwhile, the person described by the New York Times as the “nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, has to tiptoe around the president’s ego when correcting the facts. Fauci’s appearances on television reportedly have to be cleared in advance with the White House.
On it goes, with his GOP sycophants raging that Trump’s political opponents see the coronavirus as an opportunity to bring him down.
Trump’s communications strategy seems inspired by the Chinese authorities’ initial reluctance to tell the truth about the virus, which likely contributed to its spread; or the Iranian response, where medical authorities are undoubtedly cowed by the leaders of the theocracy and have seen an explosion in COVID-19 cases. Two regimes where freedom of the press is a dangerously foreign concept.
In the face of a virus that the WHO has just declared a pandemic, Trump’s brand of carnival show narcissism is deadly. It is a time when the world needs to believe its leaders and to be told the truth, particularly when you can find internet advice to drink bleach and when people like disgraced evangelist Jim Bakker (who served time in the slammer for fraud) are promoting unproven “cures.”
There are not many issues where an effective, believable communications strategy is a matter of life or death. COVID-19 is one. The president of the United States is failing the test.