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Honesty, consistency and expectation setting: lessons from our Prime Minister

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

It might be an understatement to say that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced a difficult period in his leadership of late. But the most recent headache with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout holds several lessons for content marketers, communication professionals, and, in fact, all leaders.

Honesty, consistency and expectation setting for content marketers
Scott Morrison: communications failings

The first of these is the importance of underpromising and overdelivering.

The second lesson is about honesty in communications.

And the third lesson involves channel consistency and brand alignment.

Underpromise (and then exceed expectations)

The Prime Minister ran into trouble as it became increasingly clear that Australia was not on track to meet the October vaccine rollout deadline he had previously announced.

With the benefit of hindsight, he is probably regretting setting – and publicly announcing – such an ambitious end date for the vaccine rollout, given the number of unknowns and variables at play, and the criticism has been harsh.

Consider the alternative. Had he said, for example, that all Australians wanting the vaccine would be inoculated by the end of 2022, and then completed the rollout by mid-2022, the rollout and Mr Morrison’s leadership of it, would be hailed a success.

There is nothing to be gained in announcing ambitious targets if there is uncertainty on whether your organisation will meet them. Better to take a cautious approach to such communications, moderate expectations, and then exceed them and enjoy the upside.

Honesty first, and fast

As news of vaccine setbacks percolated, it became increasingly clear to even the most casual observer that the October deadline would not be met. But it took some time for the Prime Minister to admit this and explain the reasons behind the situation.

In delaying, he lost control of the narrative, instead letting the 24-hour news cycle fill the void with adjectives such as ‘failed’, ‘bungled’ and ‘shemozzle’ taking centre stage.

A revised timeline would have always attracted some criticism, but Mr Morrison could have taken the sting out of much of it by communicating the reality of the setback, and the reasons behind it honestly, clearly, and early.

The lesson here for communications professionals is two-fold: evasion holds little upside but an awful lot of downside risk, and delaying bad news generally only makes its reception worse.

Channel choice matters

When the Prime Minister did choose to update the Australian public that the vaccine rollout was no longer on track, he did so using Facebook – a social media channel he had suggested earlier in the COVID-19 crisis was not a suitable place for Australians to get their news and information. His own words – that Australians should not “go to Facebook to find out about the vaccine. Go to official government websites” have been quoted back to him ad nauseam.

This error in message dissemination only compounded the criticism of Mr Morrison, as his choice of communications channel was questioned not only for its inconsistency but also for its one-way nature: by posting a video to Facebook there was no opportunity for the Prime Minister to face hard questions from journalists, who have claimed it was done “to avoid accountability and transparency”.

Instead of re-taking control of the story, Mr Morrison only exacerbated the criticism. The lesson here is that it is not just what is said, but where and how it is said that matters.

When choosing which channels to use to communicate your organisation’s messaging, ensure they are consistent with your brand values. Given the Government’s criticisms of Facebook over its opposition to the news media code and inaction on tackling hate speech, it seems like an ‘off-brand’ place for the Prime Minister to singularly communicate such a significant piece of information.

And by choosing a one-way medium such as a pre-recorded video for an update to an announcement that was initially made live via a two-way press conference, the Prime Minister opened himself up to additional criticism over his honesty and authenticity.

The art of communication

The irony in all of this is that Mr Morrison was a marketer in a previous life.

The fact that he can get it so wrong serves to illustrate what a minefield the art of communication can sometimes be.

As both a journalist and content marketer, I see the view from both sides of the fence, so if you need expert advice on content messaging or strategy, email me today.

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