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Tom Clonan The messaging from this new government has been an omnishambles

Its communications strategy has been a mess at a crucial time for public health, Brexit and the economy, writes Clonan.

SIX MONTHS AGO this week, Ireland was plunged into the current prolonged rolling health emergency. On 12 March, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made his historic speech from Washington DC, ‘I need to speak to you about Coronavirus’.

At the outset of the current pandemic emergency, the Taoiseach of the day was, from a communications perspective, straight out of the traps and ‘on message’.  His speech was clear, unambiguous and decisive.

One of the principal tenets of effective emergency management is crisis communication. Simply put, when the going gets tough, the toughest part can be clear communication and ethical leadership through the crisis.

Clarity is key

In this regard, in March, Varadkar embodied the classic Platonic ideal of ethical leadership – his rhetoric was clear, honest and open.  Most importantly, his deeds matched his words.  He cut short his visit to the Whitehouse and immediately returned home to manage and lead the crisis response.  He took responsibility and acted accordingly.

At this time, Leo employed no less than seven politically appointed special advisors in the Department of An Taoiseach. Costing the taxpayer almost half a million Euro per annum in salary alone, these highly paid advisors at least seemed to represent some value for money as the Covid crisis took hold. 

From the outset of Covid-19 and in its initial stages of lockdown and rolling restrictions, Leo’s team – ably assisted by his Government Press Secretary, Nick Miller – ensured that we had visible, clear leadership from Varadkar and Ministers for Health and Finance, Simon Harris and Paschal Donohue respectively. 

In March, Varadkar invited John Concannon – formerly head of his controversial ‘Strategic Communications Unit’ to coordinate a whole-of-government communications response to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. 

To their credit, the initial stages of the crisis were characterised by crystal clear and coherent communications from all of the key stakeholders in the crisis – including most notably the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan and the head of the HSE, Paul Reid. 

Changing of the guard

However, over the Summer months, with newly appointed Taoiseach Michéal Martin at the helm, government communications have deteriorated dramatically. Initially, the Fianna Fáil led government’s communications travails might have been dismissed as teething problems.

Government messaging it seems has descended to the level of farce with a series of missteps from Golfgate to the infamous ‘trampoline’ remarks of the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on schools re-opening. 

At a time of pandemic and national crisis, the performance of the new administration during the normally quiet ‘silly season’ of the Summer recess could be described as an omnishambles.

It is hard to pinpoint how, or why, exactly this dramatic loss of face has taken place.  Government communications in general and emergency response, in particular, have improved dramatically in recent years.   

‘The Minister for Snow?’

Indeed, Ireland’s national emergency response reflexes have improved almost beyond recognition in the last decade. The last prolonged national emergency was triggered when Taoiseach Brian Cowen formally requested financial assistance for Ireland through the EU’s economic-financial stability facility (EFSF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

On that day, 21 November 2010, Ireland ceded its national sovereignty and entered a prolonged period of austerity. The emergency response was appalling. The Taoiseach floundered. Well-paid special advisors at the highest level of government communication simply failed to communicate in a timely or open manner. 

Shortly thereafter, the country was plunged into another, albeit short-lived, national emergency. A series of severe weather emergencies engulfed the country from November 2010 through to Christmas and the new year. 

Flooding, wind and prolonged snow – with arctic temperatures brought the country to a standstill. As with the financial crisis – government communications was appalling. The then Minister for the Environment John Gormley failed to declare an emergency and stated that he was ‘not the Minister for Snow’. 

This was despite the fact that his own departmental literature – including a booklet on national emergencies delivered to every household in the state – identified severe weather as an emergency, with the minister for the environment as the person responsible for crisis response. 

The government’s chaotic and uncoordinated response to the weather event – compounded by their suboptimal communication – added needlessly to the suffering caused by the weeks and months of rain, flooding, wind and snow. 

It was a textbook illustration of the observation of Greek moral philosopher Epictetus who stated – ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’.

Finally on message

However, the government and the public service learned from their mistakes.  To give them credit, our emergency response to catastrophic events has been dramatically overhauled by politicians and policymakers in the last ten years. 

The government’s Office for Emergency Planning has incrementally improved our response times and effectiveness at dealing with everything from severe weather events to banking and payments crises to pandemics.

In its document ‘Strategic Emergency Management:  National Structures and Framework’, the government sets out very clearly and explicitly our optimum responses to a range of national emergencies.  This state-of-the-art document defines our current Covid-19 crisis as a prolonged ‘National Level Emergency’.  

Annex A to the document contains a list of 50 national emergency scenarios from Tsunamis to Earthquakes and Terror Attacks. Scenario 26 is listed as ‘Pandemic Influenza and Other Health Emergencies’.

The advice to the government is clear. On page 2 of the document, it states that government should ‘Provide clear leadership in times of emergency’.  This was certainly the case at the outset of the current crisis.

Unfortunately, the latter stages of the crisis – its most crucial and sensitive phase – have become ever more fraught with communication errors and leadership issues around discipline and cohesion. 

The ‘Strategic Emergency Document’ stresses the critical importance of this phase of the crisis. Most importantly, the government needs to focus on the route-map back to normality.

To this end, the document emphasises an effective ‘coordination of the recovery phase of operations, thereby facilitating a timely return to normal life within the shortest practicable timescale’. 

From clarity to chaos

Closing down the country was relatively easy to communicate as the crisis emerged in March and April. According to the government’s own play-book, messaging around the recovery phase needed to be crystal clear.

In terms of emergency management and crisis communications, the lessons have been learned and the directions are clear. So why the communications omnishambles at this critical juncture? 

There is no doubt that throughout this crisis, both Leo Varadkar and his successor Michéal Martin have acted with alacrity and considerable energy to serve the public interest. Both, along with their cabinet colleagues have invested all of their energies in navigating what is hopefully the final – but difficult – phase of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Despite this, however, Taoiseach Michéal Martin’s fledgeling administration has been dogged by a series of communications fiascos and gaffes. At the best of times, during the Summer silly season, you could write these off as a series of unfortunate and curious coincidences. 

At this worst of times however, during a national pandemic and with Brexit looming, the ongoing media relations ‘shit-show’ undermines the national effort to combat the Covid-19 virus and the effort to get us out of recession.

Value consensus and ‘buy-in’ to the difficult public health measures has been a hallmark of the Irish public’s response to the Covid-19 crisis to date. It was hard fought for and won by proactive, coordinated communication from government and Irish people’s good-will and sense of citizenship and community. 

The public’s buy-in should not be taken for granted as we enter this challenging winter period. Key to maintaining value consensus at this sensitive time is effective and timely government communication. It has never been more important.

The current administration has appointed over 60 special advisers and communications experts – with some ministers having as many as six such advisors and two ‘chiefs of staff’. According to pay details published by the previous administration, these advisors cost the Irish taxpayer almost five million Euro per annum in salaries alone.        

Among these advisors are many senior journalists with decades of experience at the highest levels of Irish print and broadcast journalism – a dream-team of talent and experience. On paper, Ireland should have the most effective communications profile in the EU – if not the world.

For some reason however government communications have deteriorated markedly of late. Some seasoned political observers have spoken of ‘shit-stirring’ at this critical moment for Ireland. 

There must be zero tolerance for political game-playing and inter-party rivalries among the coalition partners. At this time of national emergency, they need to pull together – straighten up and fly right – put aside their differences and act as a government of national unity. 

At a minimum, Taoiseach Michéal Martin and his cabinet colleagues need to coordinate their highly paid special advisors, spokespersons and media advisors as a matter of urgency to act exclusively in the public interest in this final, critical phase of this major national emergency. 

There can be no room for ‘shit-stirring’ during this sensitive re-opening phase of our schools, universities and our wider economy. History will be a harsh judge of anyone in government or in receipt of a taxpayer’s salary who places petty party rivalries above the national interest.    

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter

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