The saying that "a week is a lifetime in politics" has never been more apt than these past 7 days. In that time, we have seen the 'risk' of Ebola arrive in New York. Prime Minister Harper is on a public rebound following his determined and compassionate response to the 'crisis' in Ottawa. The nation and people around the world mourned the murder of a heroic young man, while in the world of 'politics' John Tory emerged victorious from the Toronto Mayor's race. 'Scandal' in the world of broadcasting has set the Twitterverse® on fire with Jian Gomeshi, host of CBC Radio and NPR's 'Q' fired by the CBC after stories emerge alleging physical abuse and sexual improprieties. The week was an exceptional mix of Crisis, Politics, Risk and Scandal. What to make of it all?
The terrible events in and around Parliament Hil last week triggered by the shocking murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo while standing on guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier left Canadians and people around the world angered and saddened by what they saw unfolding on their television screens. In media terms, the network anchors, print and radio reporters did an excellent job under very difficult circumstances to report it in as responsible a way as they could. However, the media had to rely heavily upon Twitter® accounts for their news, resulting in inaccuracies and speculation (about a 'second gunman', another shooting at the Rideau Centre or the Chateau Laurier). That - combined with only the sketchiest of hard news from the authorities, kept the fear factor high for much of the day.
Although a great deal of appreciation is owed to our police and security personnel who managed the terrible situation, lessons can be learned about how to keep the public and the media informed while protecting the public.
5 'Crisis' Lessons that we learned from the terrible events in Ottawa:
1. Identify in advance, and execute instantly, an Incident Command system, in which all of the key police, security, medical and other members are acting in a coordinated, coherent way.
2. Set up and utilize regular social media and traditional media channels and update throughout the event.
3. Don't leave long gaps between announcements, as the media will fill it with social media commentary and raw 'reports' that can serve to confuse, rather than inform. There was a clear vacuum of official information throughout much of the day, as downtown Ottawa was shut down in search for the 'second gunman' who never materialized.
4. Don't hold a news conference with no news to announce. At 2 pm, the media were called to RCMP headquarters for a 'joint news conference' that mostly involved deflections, instead of advancing what we already knew. Better off not to have one until you can bring certainty to the situation.
5. Seek to reduce anxiety. Although they did a good job of inviting members of the public to share photos or video that would help in the operation, the police could have expanded on their use of social media to reduce anxiety and provide clear directions to the public on an ongoing basis.
However, those lessons should that take nothing away from the courageous and determined efforts of the RCMP, Ottawa Police Force and the heroics of the House of Commons and Senate security staff - particularly the actions of House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers in taking down the gunman before he could inflict any further harm. The media too should receive kudos for their difficult work under fire as fear and anxiety reigned throughout downtown Ottawa.
In the aftermath, the Harper Government tabled long-delayed legislation to strengthen security provisions against terrorism. According to Ekos Research polling the public's initial acceptance of such state actions, subsides in the long run. But before the next election? That depends, of course, on when it is. However, Mr. Harper is wasting no time to find out.
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Let's put it this way. The Prime Minister is clearly keeping his electoral options open. He wants to be in a position to go when he wants - rather than waiting for his own fixed election date of next October. One thing we know after nine years in power.
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|Canada 150th Ad|
Of course what would politics be without advertising? Which brings me to the issue of Government ads - are they a propaganda tool? Here on the CBC News' 'The National with Wendy Mesley', I give my analysis of the thin line separating government public service ads from political propaganda. Although these ads do not cross the line in my view, but they do demonstrate the power of incumbency.
First, whether it's Ebola or 'terrorist' actions, count on over-reactions from the public. The basic principle - which we teach in our Communicating Risk Seminar - is that is that the public tends to underestimate real threats (flu) and tends to overestimate perceived threats that pose much less risk (Ebola).
One reason is that the traditional definition of risk was this formula: 'Amount of Hazard x Likelihood of Occurrence = Risk".
According to Peter Sandman of Rutgers University, today the definition is: "Amount of Hazard + Public Outrage = Risk".
The public was outraged once Ebola landed in Texas, and again in New York, due to medical personnel who, themselves, under-estimated their own exposure to Ebola. When the state governors over-reacted to the threat by issuing mandatory quarantine orders for all returning doctors and nurses from West Africa (without taking into account the huge disincentive for organizations such as 'Doctors without Borders'
At the political level, it translates into over-reactions by Governors Christie (New Jersey), Cuomo (New York), Lepage (Maine). Although, just yesterday, after a mounting backlash against the mandatory quarantine, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to financially compensate medical personnel who volunteered to fight Ebola in West Africa.
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However, Gov. LePage is losing in the court of public opinion over his enforcement of the quarantine agains nurse Kacie Hickox as she defies the Governor's actions. He appears determined to make her a hero. President Obama has moved to pick up on the growing public sentiment that it's wrong to treat medical professionals in this manner. However, we are days away from the mid-term elections, so it's all fodder for the political machines.
|Jian Gomeshi in happier times|
Finally, the Jian Gomeshi escalating 'scandal'. As I posted early on in the unfolding story, his decision to post a 1600 word Facebook statement in which he attempted to jump ahead of the brewing scandal, only ended up triggering the Toronto Star to publish the results of its investigations, including detailed allegations from women who had powerful stories to tell that contradicted Gomeshi's attempts to paint his behaviour as 'kinky' rather than violence against women. The public outrage was so great that it backfired on Gomeshi - to the point where even his own crisis communications and public relations firms fired him! [That is usually done when the client doesn't tell you the essential truth and the firm ends up wearing the disaster.] The CBC is moving quickly to investigate his behaviour at the CBC by bringing in an outside investigator. As more and more women come forward with stories of his conduct, one can already see that the tide has shifted.
'Never pick a fight with people who buys ink by the barrel'. (Mark Twain)
Of course, the CBC is already demonstrating that it has enormous resources to air 'the other side' of the story in which every day, Jian is looking worse and worse. Mr. Gomeshi is going to wish that he had stayed with his original storyline, that he "wanted to take some time to deal with personal issues". As normally happens in these stories, there is a rush to judgement. We need to remember, however, that he has not been charged with any crime, and even if he is, he is presumed innocent. So, even though his handling of the case has been spectacularly ineffective, we need to wait until the process is completed before deciding ultimately the true nature and extent of what he has done.
In the meantime, however, his once spectacular career has become 'toast'.
Until next time!