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What we've got here is a failure to communicate

In case you’re outside the province or have not caught our news, Ontario is in an absolute mess right now.

While our vaccination rates have improved, they were quickly surpassed by the number of active COVID cases in the province, many caused by variants that are leading to quickly overflowing ICUs.

While vaccine distribution centres have been smoothly run, the availability to book appointments has been anything but. Municipalities and local health authorities have taken to implementing their own standards, leaving individuals desperately trying for days to book an appointment.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford initially delayed making any major announcement, then announced an ‘emergency brake’ measure, with most businesses remaining open at varying forms of limited capacity.

When that failed to prove effective, the Province implemented a province-wide shut down. Even still, Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce repeatedly declared that schools were safe to remain open, despite schoolboards independently choosing to suspend in-person learning, and the province itself deciding to go virtual only recently, contradicting a statement by Lecce only hours after it was made.

To quote the captain in Cool Hand Luke…

The reasons for Ontario’s current state are numerous, and extend well beyond a single individual or partisan politics. Yet any partisanship aside, this government’s abject failure to provide clear and coherent communication has been absolutely abysmal. Worse, these failures are likely putting lives at stake.

So what’s gone wrong from a crisis communications perspective, and what can we all learn from this experience?

  1. BE CLEAR. I cannot stress this point enough, whether it is to my clients or to anyone looking to get a message out to a wide audience. If your communication is cloudy, opaque, or hard to understand, the message will get lost! The COVID communications from this government have been muddled in various colour codes, regional discrepancies, off-the-cuff non-sequiturs (the Premier interrupting a press conference to praise a new egg sandwich), and the like. Make sure your words - both written and spoken - are clear to anyone who needs to receive them.

  2. BE CONCISE. Speaking concisely is rare in the political arena, but in times of crisis the failure to do so can make a bad situation that much worse. While Ontario’s premier believes himself to be plain-spoken, his frequent ‘folksy’ descriptors of situations have only served to further cloud his messaging. When your brand is in crisis, your clients do not want to watch you stumble through a proverbial ‘blame game.’ They want to see you outline the problem clearly, and offer solutions that will rebuild confidence and put minds at ease. Ontario is currently in crisis, and convoluted statements and disjointed press conferences are doing little to instill public confidence.

  3. BE UNIFIED. This has been a serious failing of this government, but can be a failing of most governments and large corporations as well. The best known brands work hard to keep a firm grasp on their outgoing messaging because they know how important it is that any messaging is unified, and does not contradict itself. Confidence is eroded when various key players in leadership blatantly contradict each other, such as the education minister steadfastly declaring schools to be safe only hours before their doors were shuttered. There have been countless other disconnects since COVID began, from government’s refusal to heed scientific advice, to various levels of government blaming each other for missteps. At the end of the day it is the public who suffers, as confusion only leads to apathy and mistrust. Instead, a solid, unified communications strategy that is well-maintained and well-delivered can go a long way to restoring public/client confidence.

There will come a day where vaccines will widely be administered, and lockdowns will eventually become a distant memory. Yet the lessons that we can learn about communications failures are crucial to avoid repeating the same mistakes, whether in business or in public life. In most instances stories matter, and they are what makes your messaging resonate.

In a crisis though, speaking clearly, concisely, and with a unified voice will go a long way towards improving a difficult situation.

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