Communications in the time of corona

In 20 years time I won’t remember where I was when Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, announced the second day of no positive cases and the lifting of Stage 4 restrictions after 111 days of lockdown.

But I will never forget the day we hit 671 daily cases and a total case load over 11,000.

It wasn’t even the peak, but that day and number are seared in my brain: 671 new cases announced on Sunday 2 August.

I was out running errands in my car. I had to pull over, devastated and frightened after hearing the number on the radio.

Victorians lived through the fear of climbing COVID-19 numbers, knowing what the disease looked like in countries where it has got out of control. We had already seen it wreak havoc in Spain, Italy and Iran.

Writing this today, we are at zero daily cases, and coming to terms with life under ‘COVID Normal’.

What got us here?  Strong, brave public health advice and strong brave public health messaging.

The Premier, speaking everyday to Victorians for 120 days in a row.

Taking every question, reiterating as many times as necessary, the clear advice that we could come together by staying apart.

Now the envy of so many countries, this strong political leadership and messaging endured despite being accompanied by a loud and bullying political soundtrack.

While the Premier worked day and night finding every strategy to bring COVID-19 under control, B-grade celebrities demanded to play golf as a human right, and were given a powerful voice by our city’s largest newspaper.

While our health experts were making life and death decisions on our behalf, sniping political opinions from people not qualified in public health were incessantly broadcast.

At daily press conferences, the Premier had to put up with questions like this:  “If you are walking in the forest on your own with no-one around, surely you don’t need to wear a mask” in the tone of a gotcha-surely-this-time-you-should-resign mode.

We are used to politically motivated reporting in our town, and the reporting of politics that reduces all issues to a simple horse race, measured at the end of the day by elections.

But what happened during so many of the Premier’s media conferences, watched eagerly by so many people unfiltered and live, was new. For many, not used to the horse race of political reporting  they watched the indignant tone of contrarian players whose job is to create conflict and sow discontent.

Some of our media just didn’t seem to understand that what mattered first and foremost was winning the battle against the virus. For the public – it wasn’t Labor versus Liberal, it was us versus the virus. It wasn’t #dictatordan versus #istandwithdan, it was the day to day struggle to listen to the advice from the media  conferences, holding our breath as we waited for better numbers, looking out for our families and friends as best we could.

Over time, it became a desperate hope that the determination of our political and health leaders would not be undermined by the self-serving partisanship and too much opinion lead media coverage.

The anger on Twitter about the  treatment of the Premier is an anger about the ‘gate keepers’ in the media who presume that they talk for all of us, that they understand and reflect the public mood.

I am not saying the public don’t care that mistakes were made. They may really care, and they will have their say at the next election.  The public will make their decision. They don’t need endless opinion pieces or  open letters in national newspapers from self-important people calling for the Premier to resign.  That is democracy’s job.

I am a long-time spin doctor and I have been part of the talk-fest establishment able to express my views about the winners and losers in a PR and political sense during COVID-19.

But never have I been so aware of the immateriality of my opinion.  And of the oh so many opinions we have all had to stomach over the last few months.

Opinions don’t help fight a virus. Not on radio, on Twitter, on Sky TV or on talkback. COVID-19 doesn’t care what you think or feel.

Good government, listening to the real experts, a strong health system, leadership in difficult times, a social contract that binds us in collective responsibility, and the courage to do what is right, not what is popular: around the world, it appears these are the only factors that have stopped COVID-19 in its tracks.

Elizabeth Lukin is a highly-respected specialist in strategic and crisis communications. She was a director of Essential Media Communications for 16 years with a diverse client base from unions, corporates, Indigenous organisations and sport. Elizabeth has also spent 5 years at the AFL, four of which were as the general manager of Communications and Corporate Affairs.  Elizabeth is back consulting and appears regularly on the Spin Doctor segment on Virginia Trioli’s program on the ABC.

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