Following the tragic deaths of four people in a recent flood in Auckland, New Zealand, mayor Wayne Brown has been accused of a poorly managed emergency response – not for the methods he did or did not deploy to help rescue his constituents – but for his approach to communications.
Brown’s critics – of whom there are many – say his radio silence and delay in declaring a state of emergency resulted in people failing to understand the severity of the situation until it was too late, and left gaps in the understanding and collaboration between different emergency response teams. Brown’s defence has been that he was too busy managing the crisis to think about communications – an argument that makes it clear he views communications as an add-on to emergency response instead of an integral part of managing a crisis.
When he finally declared an emergency, he made yet another error by sitting down to sign the order with a freshly made cup of tea. The optics of this weren’t great. He and his team were already late to act, yet there was time to make tea first.
It is now more than a week since this crisis began and Auckland is still in a declared state of emergency. Brown has received petitions and high-profile calls for his resignation. In the face of all this criticism and the loss of life, it still took him a full week to issue a weak apology which continued to shirk responsibility – ironically practicing poor communication when addressing his communication failures.
Thankfully for most of us, lives aren’t at stake when we face a crisis in our business or organisation. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned from mayor Brown. When managing or planning for a crisis, communication isn’t an add on, it is a central component to effectively weathering a storm and limiting damage – whether that be financial, reputational or, at the worst extreme, human life.
In truth and fairness, it is difficult to communicate to the best of your ability when you are in the middle of a crisis – fear and uncertainty can lead to immobility. Do you have the right channel – the right message – the right tone? Have you forgotten any customers or stakeholders? Are you being transparent – are you minimising risk? What are the optics of the situation – should you wait on that cup of tea?
This difficulty is why crisis communication plans should be developed and in place long before trouble strikes. I am reminded of the quote from John F. Kennedy, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining”. You can never prepare for everything, but having procedures, processes, key messages and risk assessments in place will enable you to react timely, clearly and efficiently.
I don’t know whether mayor Brown and his team ignored crisis communication plans or if they didn’t exist. It is impossible for me to know if more timely messages could have saved people. But it is worryingly clear that many leaders don’t recognise that communication is an essential tool to effectively manage a crisis, and my heart goes out to the friends and families of those who have died in this tragedy.