Crisis communication not a competition

What is the smart way to respond to criticism that a Government is letting down its citizens by failing to keep them informed about critical developments?

The wrong answer is clear. It is to hold a press conference in which you attempt to ridicule a reporter asking questions about a matter the Government has previously been treating with an almost exaggerated seriousness.

At a joint press conference yesterday with the National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) and the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, was a study in contrasts about public communication and leadership.

Leausa refused to respond in anything but Samoan to questions from the Samoa Observer’s English-speaking reporter. 

We might try to muster a sense of indignation about this incident, which was transparently designed to limit the Director-General’s exposure to scrutiny.

But it is difficult to feel anything other than embarrassment about Leausa’s behaviour.

Monday’s press conference was part of an attempt to counter perceptions that the Government had lacked any sense of urgency or obligation to the public after a COVID-19 scare in Samoa last week. In this respect it was disastrous.

The cause of that perception, as is now well known, was Leausa himself.

In a story that is now well known, he had been informed by the Government of American Samoa that three sailors on a ship that had spent 22 hours docked in Samoan waters had the coronavirus but made no public statement.

By contrast, American Samoan authorities immediately and publicly raised their COVID-19 alert level to “code blue”. They then held a press conference detailing their quarantine plan for workers possibly exposed to the virus and a frank assessment of the risk posed by the ship.

They even found time to call Leausa on Sunday evening as a courtesy to inform him of the test results as the ship had been travelling from Apia. 

The news was invariably going to reach Samoa’s shores, given the close relationship between the two Samoas but it took the Samoa Observer to reveal the news some 12 hours after Leausa first took the call. 

It took the N.E.O.C. another ten hours to hold a press conference revealing its quarantine plans. 

Unsurprisingly, the Government and Ministry of Health have been pilloried by Samoa’s opposition parties for the lack of urgency it showed on the issue. 

Those opposition criticisms carry extra weight when the Government has taken such a hardline on all other matters related to COVID-19 such as banning Sunday swimming. 

It is unsurprising then that Leausa might have felt like a man besieged on Monday.

Perhaps that explains why he decided to try to exclude an English-speaking Samoa Observer reporter asking serious questions about his response to the COVID-19 threat.

“You can bring a translator for yourself if you don’t mind. I have decided to speak to you in Samoan so that I can express myself clearly,” Leausa said (in English).

Those remarks prompted a ripple of laughter from members of state-media outlets in attendance who depend upon the Government for their pay cheques. 

Perhaps, for a minute, Leausa thought he had outpointed his critics.

The problem with this thinking is the insight it provides into the Director-General's mind: that engaging with the media is a contest. 

It is not. The Samoa Observer reported on the case of the Fesco Askold because doing so was in the best interests of the nation, one of the few left in the world to remain COVID-19 free and which remains extremely vulnerable to any outbreak.

Leausa should recognise that and that part of his role as the Director-General of the Health Ministry is to keep the public informed about serious developments. After all, it is the public that writes his pay cheques.

Standing next to Leausa during this shabby display on Monday was Agafili Shem Leo, the Interim Chairman of N.E.O.C. 

He did not entertain Leausa's games and at times seemed embarrassed as he stared off into the distance as his colleague continued his browbeating. 

The bar may be low indeed, but, sitting next to Leausa, Agafili seemed like a breath of fresh air.

He appeared like the kind of competent administrator this nation has been crying out for to steer it through times of crisis. 

He did not take a hostile approach to members of the fourth estate and appeared to grasp well the concept that making oneself available for questioning by the fourth estate should be part of the Government's responsibility.

Indeed, since he has taken over as the acting head of the N.E.O.C. Agafili has held two press conferences in as many weeks and on Monday undertook to have more as repatriation flights from other parts of the world to Samoa began arriving from other parts of the world in the leadup to Christmas.

Agafili was also cool, composed and in control - not hostile or combative; a reassuring voice when it is needed most. 

"We would like to inform the country as information comes in," he said. 

"We will call press conferences when we know it is a matter of public interest."

Politics is often characterised as a combat sport. But when it comes to keeping people informed, competition and public images should never be considered. 

The public is owed explanations about matters that concern the public health. When they do not receive them conspiracy theories fill the void, as they did when the Ministry of Health stood silent.

The leader Samoa requires in a time of crisis is someone who understands that the relationship between the Government and the media is not antagonistic but cooperative.

There is no room for games to be played. The stakes are simply too high. 

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