Monday, April 06, 2020

Media Conferences

All over the world, it has become the custom for government officials and political leaders to hold a media conference on national television, updating the latest information about the spread of the coronavirus, and describing government activities to deal with it.

Having done media training, in which I was taught how to tell the media what I wanted them to hear, rather than what they wanted to know, I am a bit cynical about what is said in news conferences.

At least NZ, social distancing has stopped the cheesy American practice of having half a dozen people crowding the speaker and cluttering the camera shot with agonised looks on their faces.

I know from doing time, that when a bureaucrat says that they are “doing some work on something”, it means that they are embarrassed because they have been caught short on something they are responsible for doing, and they are desperately trying to put the problem right, before anyone notices their failure.

At a news conference two days ago, a senior health official used the expression four times.

When an official speaking to a press conference seems confused and uncertain, I can’t help wondering if they are out of their depth and the department they manage is not functioning well.

When I see an official at a press conference speaking confidently and clearly, and easily diverting tricky questions, I am reminded of Roger Sutton, the CEO of the Electricity lines company during the Christchurch earthquake. He went on television every night following the earthquake and talked about what his company was doing to restore electricity. He spoke with confidence and flair, so people were wowed with his grasp of the issues and challenges. A few years later, after he had been appointed to lead and important earthquake recovery agency, which continued to perform badly under his leadership, news emerged that he been forced to step down from due to sleazy behaviour.

The electricity company continued on fine without him and it became clear the restoration of the electricity system was organized by his boring, but competent, deputy, and some experienced engineers who quickly developed bold and clever plans to install portable generators, substations and to build a new high voltage transmission line into the worst affect areas.

Ability to wow a media conference does not tell us much about the effectiveness of the organisation the speaker is leading. In the current media conferences, some hints of an organisation that has been caught out and is struggling to catch up have sneaked through.

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