The power of the press conference: 5 key lessons from COVID-19 crisis comms

By Samantha Seewoosurrun, CIPR International committee member based in Mauritius,

Not long ago, in the pre-COVID-19 era, communications professionals used to debate whether the days of the press conference were numbered in the digital age. Within weeks, the humble press conference has emerged as the greatest show on earth, while parliaments sink into irrelevance.

Today, the press conference has become the key forum for the announcement of measures which have a direct and substantial impact on the lives and freedoms usually enjoyed by national populations, and for the dissemination of dramatic statistics on the spread of the virus, the lives tragically lost, and the capacities of national healthcare systems to cope.

The unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 crisis, and the fact that each and every citizen has a role to play in combatting its spread, means that communicating the right messages to the people has never been more critical, and getting it wrong has never carried such grave consequences.

A virtual tour of press conferences around the globe allows us to draw five key lessons for crisis communications in the future:

1 Keep it simple:

For an example of plain speaking to the people, shooting straight from the hip, we need look no further than Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State. While New York has always been synonymous with freedom, it has also suffered terribly at the hands of terrorists, and Andrew has had no difficulty in boldly communicating plain and stark messages that this is a war on home turf and that the normal rules of engagement no longer apply.

He has clearly stated: “This is a war and our healthcare professionals are our soldiers on the front line”. In terms of the need for people to comply, he was equally clear cut: “This is a mandate… You will be next”.

It is highly desirable for political chiefs to lead by example and promote a consistent message on what the public should, and should not, do to combat the coronavirus. Elsewhere in the US, however, President Trump made highly contradictory statements on the issue of wearing masks, saying that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was advising the use of a non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure but that “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it”.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a well-known libertarian, rather struggled to find the right narrative to make the UK public sit up and listen in the early stages of the communication campaign (before he caught the virus himself) by focusing on ‘government advice’ as opposed to a ‘government prohibition’ on certain activities.

This left the general public unclear as to what was allowed and what was not. He also got in a Mother’s Day muddle after telling people to “really think very carefully” about meeting their elderly mothers but that in relation to his own mother “I will certainly be sending her my very best wishes and hope to get to see her.” It was subsequently clarified by his advisers that he meant by Skype.

In terms of setting out why a global pandemic is a problem for your own citizens, look no further than the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who explained in announcing the lockdown: “This is extremely dangerous for a population like ours, with a large number of people with suppressed immunity because of HIV and TB, and high levels of poverty and malnutrition.”

However, if there is one single message which has resonated around the world and in different languages, then that one resounding message is to stay home, from South Africa (#stayhomeSA) to Italy (#stiamoacasa), from France (restez chez vous pour sauver des vies) to the Democratic Republic of Congo (restez à la maison), from Canada (Stay home, save lives / Restez chez vous, sauvez des vies) to the UK (Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.), from Angola (#fiqueemcasa) to Spain (#YoMeQuedoEnCasa) and from New Zealand (stay home to save lives) to Mauritius (#reslakaz).

2 Be open and transparent:

At a time of crisis, it is critical for governments to be perceived as being open and transparent in sharing information with the public. Having said that, it is a communication challenge when it comes to striking the right balance in terms of the amount of detail to give, beyond the headline figures on the number of cases, deaths and recoveries.

Since a torrent of statistics can be difficult for the media and the general public to absorb, visual tools can and should be used to good effect, as in Ghana, where government representatives have shown all the main information in a table on a screen in the press conference and then talked the media through it.

For countries which are undertaking contact tracing, such as Mauritius and New Zealand, there is a further challenge in determining how much detail to give regarding the spread of the coronavirus while respecting confidentiality obligations.

In Mauritius, the Director of Health Services, Dr Vasantrao Gujadhur, has given daily updates on how contact tracing has evolved without naming any of the people concerned, and he has refrained from answering questions from journalists asking for more personal or geographical detail, to safeguard against the possible identification of certain parties on a small island.

If we look at the situation across the globe, there are two recurring questions being asked of government authorities:

  • When will we have a vaccine or cure?
  • What are the current predictions for the number of deaths in my country?

Firstly, considering that there is currently no vaccine for the coronavirus, I would argue that any public statements from political leaders on potential cures and treatments must be carefully calibrated and explained in a responsible manner, so as not to confuse or mislead the public, since this could lead to dire consequences.

During a press conference on 19 March, President Trump claimed that the antimalarial drug chloroquine was showing “really good promise” as a potential coronavirus treatment. He announced that “it was approved very, very quickly and it’s now approved by prescription,” and added that “it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody.”

It was subsequently clarified by the Commissioner of the Federal Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, that chloroquine had not been approved to treat COVID-19, but that it was available by prescription for non-approved uses. He cautioned, however, that effectiveness and proper dosage were unknown and that it would need to be tested in clinical trials.

Two days later, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) reported that a couple from Arizona in their 60s had ingested a fish tank solvent containing chloroquine, killing the husband and hospitalising the wife.

The woman explained that they had taken it as a preventive measure after hearing Trump and others talk about it on TV, and urged people to not “believe anything that the President says and his people because they don’t know what they’re talking about. And don’t take anything — be so careful and call your doctor. This is a heart ache I’ll never get over”.

Who was at fault? While some claim that Trump was clearly responsible for what happened, the Editor of the National Review in the US, Charles C.W. Cooke, leapt to his defence, saying that the couple had in fact ingested chloroquine phosphate intended for fish, which, while it is the same active ingredient as found in the medicine, differs substantially from the drug form of chloroquine, and that “sad as their predicament is, the only ‘advice’ to be gleaned from the couple’s behaviour is ‘don’t be an unimaginable moron’.”

Secondly, when it comes to predictions, transparency can be a double-edged sword. In the UK, it is debatable whether government spokespeople did in fact hit the right spot by talking about ‘herd immunity’ in the early stages, which gave rise to suspicions that the government might have a policy of letting people catch the coronavirus so around 60% of the population would get it, which risked creating panic among the population.

A statement from Stephen Powis, the national medical director of the UK National Health Service, that ‘if we can keep deaths below 20,000, we will have done very well in this epidemic’ could also be considered as ill-judged.

3 Keep it regular:

At a time of significant anxiety, the holding of a daily televised press conference can provide reassurance to the general public and can also help media outlets to plan their coverage. Daily press conferences are being held in many of the hardest hit countries, including the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, South Africa, Cameroon and the UK, as well as India, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Angola and New Zealand, among others, and also on a regular basis in countries including Ghana, Gabon, Botswana, Colombia and the Netherlands.

The timing of the press conference varies around the world, with those held in North America and Spain normally taking place in the morning, those held in New Zealand at lunchtime, those held in the UK and South Africa being in the afternoon, and those in Italy, France and Gabon in the evening.

Press conferences held in the evening tend to appear most ‘up to date’ as the figures from the day can be announced, but in reality the main benefit comes from holding the press conference at a fixed time, no matter what that time is, to show that the government has a firm grip on the situation.

If, in the light of unexpected developments, a press conference really does have to be moved to a different time slot, then governments should use all means at their disposal to disseminate a new fixed time for the press conference, such as radio, television, and websites, to show that the government cares about ensuring that the maximum number of people can attend the virtual press briefing and stay updated on the latest facts and figures in real time.

Political leaders should not be tempted to hide behind the pre-recorded ‘address to the nation’ except on rare occasions. Indeed, the worst scenario in terms of creating suspicion and panic among the media and general public is where a press conference is scheduled, it is then cancelled without warning, and an address to the nation is given instead.

4 Present the right spokespeople:

The spokespeople who are put on the panel of press conferences send a strong signal about the gravity of the situation before saying a single word, and a plethora of approaches can be seen around the world.

It is notable that in a number of the hardest hit countries the press conferences are being led by officials who are able to explain a large amount of data, such as Jérôme Salomon, Director General of Health in France, and Angelo Borrelli, Head of the Department for Civil Protection in Italy, supported by health officials. While by definition these press conferences score highly on detail, this type of approach risks giving a rather ‘technocratic’ impression without necessarily offering the viewing public the comfort that they might be looking for.

Some countries are able to draw upon the fact that the Health Minister is himself a medical doctor, as is the case of Dr Zweli Mkhize in South Africa, or have appointed a medical doctor as the lead spokesperson, such as Dr Guy Patrick Obiang Ndong in Gabon, or Dr Zouberr Joomaye in Mauritius, which adds an extra layer of credibility.

In a ‘normal’ crisis, it would be advisable to have a lead spokesperson who would act as a focal point to communicate the main messages about what is happening and to ensure continuity.

The problem in the case of COVID-19 is that a number of the initial lead spokespeople have themselves either been struck down by the coronavirus or put into quarantine or self-isolation.

The most high-profile case so far has been Boris Johnson in the UK, who got off to a cracking start, leading from the front flanked by his Chief Scientific Officer and Chief Medical Officer, making daily announcements in a press conference and taking questions from journalists.

This clear structure quickly changed, however, when Boris unfortunately caught the virus, as did the Health Secretary, and the Chief Medical Officer also went into self-isolation, and now the press conferences are led by senior Ministers and officials.

In Mauritius, a team approach to the press conference had been adopted from the outset, with the National COVID-19 Communication Committee composed of a lead spokesperson, the Director of Health Services, the Health Minister and a senior police officer, but even here the whole team had to be put into self-isolation after the Health Minister’s secretary tested positive, and then the Prime Minister, the Hon. Pravind Jugnauth, had to take over, who had previously only participated in the case of major announcements.

The lead spokesperson, Dr Zouberr Joomaye, has subsequently appeared alone speaking from self-isolation at his residence. It demonstrates the need for multiple communication back up plans for spokespeople like never seen before.

India has adopted a mixed approach, where the daily press conferences are being held by the joint health secretary Lav Agarwal, who focuses on the health aspects, while the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding separate video conferences each day with informed stakeholders and public figures, such as doctors, sportspeople and Bollywood stars, and asking them to give tips and advice to the public on coping with the lockdown.

A mixed approach can also be seen in South Africa, where daily ministerial press conferences are complemented by others featuring the President (where Ministers then answer the questions), and also in New Zealand where a combination of the Prime Minister, other Ministers and officials appear on different occasions.

It is notable that in Italy a second layer of spokespeople has emerged outside the official press conferences in the form of local mayors desperate to get the message across as the number of deaths continued to accelerate, which was brought to wider public attention by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show in the US.

One mayor was shown starting a video message asking the general public “what the f*** do you think you are doing?” and while another told those citizens who think they are invincible that “you are not Will Smith in I am Legend”.

5 Be fair, honest and caring:

It is critical that journalists are able to ask questions at a time of crisis, and a patchwork of approaches has been seen across the world as governments have sought to facilitate this despite the sanitary constraints.

In recent weeks, journalists have still been physically attending press conferences in North America (even if sitting at a distance from each other), while other methods employed globally include the use of a live video link in the UK, an online platform for questions in Mauritius, and in Spain questions have been read out and answered.

In the light of restrictions on journalists being introduced on health grounds, governments should take care to avoid any accusations of bias.

In India, there was disquiet in the media community following a recent health ministry press conference where questions were only permitted from state-run DD News and pro-government ANI, according to the Huffington Post in India.

Being honest means saying when you don’t have all the answers to questions such as when is the lockdown going to end, when will the virus reach its peak, and how many deaths are we going to have in total? In terms of when New York State will re-open, Andrew Cuomo commented that “none of us has ever been here before.

Let’s learn from what has happened so far to inform our future decisions. The key to re-opening is going to be testing. It’s not going to be like flicking on a light switch”. He stressed that “there is no natural trajectory – the trajectory is the one that we create with our actions”. He has also coined the phrase of NY Tough, which means being Disciplined, United, Loving and Smart, to boost morale in troubled times.

Furthermore, it is right to be honest about the scale of the task ahead in terms of rebuilding the social and economic fabric of the country, at a time where hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, where the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has emphasised that nobody will be left behind (“No vamos a dejar a nadie atrás”).

Being honest also means sharing your personal experiences, and in Mauritius, the Prime Minister revealed at a press conference that he and his colleagues had been tested for coronavirus after someone they attended a meeting with was positive, but that the result for himself was negative.

Boris Johnson, as the only world leader to date to have been hospitalised after catching the coronavirus, recently gave a heartfelt message of thanks to the NHS staff that cared for him. He paid a particular tribute to Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal who “stood by my bedside for 48 hours when things could have gone either way” and described the NHS as “powered by love”.

When it comes to showing the nation that you care, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands out on the international stage. It is not so much what he says but how he makes you feel.

Whether you are concerned about how you are going to pay the bills for your family, the situation in care homes, or whether the Easter bunny will still be coming this year, Justin has got it covered. The fact that his own wife Sophie was one of the first high profile cases meant that his own family was touched by the crisis from the start, and he has not been afraid to let it show, giving updates on her condition.

Over the past weeks, he has been appearing before the media at the same time every day outside his home in Ottawa, open, honest, personal and personable, inclusive (switching seamlessly between English and French throughout his press conferences), and, above all, reassuring. A quick glance at Justin’s live Facebook feed during his press conferences reveals an outpouring of gratitude from the Canadian people for his approach and his efforts, which confirms that he is getting it right.

If we turn to New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won international acclaim for her clear and compassionate communications after the Christchurch shootings, and once again she rises to the occasion now, as the living embodiment of the CARE (Concern, Action, Reassurance) principle of crisis communications. Before the lockdown, she had already explained to the public that New Zealand was putting in place a four-level alert framework (with level 4 – eliminate – being the highest) and that the whole country, or parts of it, could go up and down the alert levels.

From a crisis communications standpoint, this is possibly the best approach seen internationally as it demonstrated (1) concern about what could happen; (2) action to prepare for it and; (3) reassurance that there is an exit strategy built into the plan, in the sense that New Zealand can scale back down the levels in a way the media and public can understand and in a way that minimises a resurgence in cases.

So when it came to the point of announcing the lockdown in New Zealand at a press conference on 23 March, two days after the announcement of the four-level alert framework, the media and public were already prepared for it, and so Jacinda’s final message was one of empathy and compassion: “Be kind. I know people will want to act as enforcers and I understand that people are afraid and they are anxious, but we will play the role of enforcer. What we need from you, our community, is you to support others. Go home tonight and check on your neighbours. Start a phone tree with your street. Plan how you will keep in touch with one another. We will get through this together, but only if we stick together. Be strong and be kind.”

Conclusion

The COVID-19 crisis is one which has already presented unprecedented challenges to global leaders in terms of healthcare management, the temporary freezing of economic activity and civil liberties, and the distribution of urgent supplies, among others. Even after the crisis eventually reaches its peak and starts to decline there will be a long road ahead to rebuild economies around the world.

In this context, the press conference has become the key forum for governments to connect with the people, with journalists asking the searching questions to which the public is seeking answers as they adjust to the new reality, where the relationship between the state and citizens has been completely redrawn.

It is not too late for crisis communications specialists in governments to learn lessons from each other, looking at best practice across the globe with New Zealand as a prime example of the CARE principle, to reinforce their communications strategy. The need to forge trust between government leaders and the public has never been greater, and the impact of crisis communications on COVID-19 will be substantial and long lasting. There is still time to get it right.

Since I started writing this article, our family and friends around the world have lost loved ones to COVID-19. I would like to dedicate this article to all of those who have sadly lost those dear to them and to wish them strength and courage in these troubled times.

Samantha Seewoosurrun MCIPR is Managing Director of Perpetual Motion Ltd, Women in Africa Ambassador for Mauritius, Co-Founder of the pan-African news portal www.platformafrica.com and Chair of the PR & Communication Technical Committee of the trade association Global Finance Mauritius.

Featured image via gov.uk.

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