In contrast to the Trump coronavirus briefings, which at times take on an eerie resemblance to a North Korean rally for their “dear leader,” Canadians are well served at all three levels of government in terms of COVID briefings. Trudeau can be a bit vague and annoying in his dodging of questions; but his briefings are immediately followed by a more substantive briefing with Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland and Dr. Theresa Tam, both of whom are generally candid and responsive to questions.
In Ontario Doug Ford has earned kudos from friend and foe alike for his straightforward delivery of information, capped yesterday with the release of COVID projections that were hard to take but showed just how dangerous the situation can get.
Locally the daily briefings from Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, and Emergency and Safety Chief Paul Johnson have likewise been informative and generally reassuring. They are doing a pretty good job. Johnson and Dr. Richardson are both good communicators. This week, however, a situation arose where the Hamilton Spectator reported that an elderly resident at Heritage Green Nursing Home died Monday but despite repeated queries from reporters the death was not confirmed until Wednesday evening even though Public Health was informed of the death on Tuesday, the same day the Spectator learned of the death. Dr Richardson later explained that there were protocols that had to be followed and notifications that had to be made before the death could be officially confirmed. Fair enough, but on Wednesday afternoon the Spec was told “Our official database number stands at one COVID-19 death.” That was a highly misleading statement, leading a casual reader to assume there was in fact, only one death to date.
In the public relations business, media trainers will tell you that the next best thing to answering the question truthfully is to explain why the information can’t be released. If there are protocols and procedures to be followed– describe them so people will understand. If the situation was that a resident had died but had not been definitively tested for COVID, why not say that? For example: “We have also learned of a death, and are awaiting test results to determine if it is related to coronavirus.” Since no names are being released in these stories a two-day delay in stating the simple fact that a death had occurred seems excessive.
A recent report at City Hall states the city has 24 communication professionals on staff–some of them senior. They should be encouraged to offer their advice without holding back. The communications advice we are describing here is PR-101 stuff. A week from now nobody is going to care about this, but for future reference, and to rebuild public trust that was eroded during the sewergate affair, messaging needs to be tightened up. This isn’t ordinary public relations, this is crisis communication.