Silent but deadly – A commentary on the USA and COVID-19

By John Kananghinis

The unfolding catastrophe that is the USA response, or lack of, to the COVID-19 pandemic is both painful to watch and a clear indication that the world’s strongest and richest nation will not be brought to its knees by external forces but by its own inability to provide good government.

In one of his most ludicrous of his statements the outgoing occupant of the Whitehouse claimed to be the best president since Lincoln. Good to see that he’s developing some humility. Prior to that he claimed to be the best President – ever!

It was Lincoln who observed that; “America will not be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” He had some experience in such matters.

The echo chamber/social media/news with a propaganda agenda environment that drives the deep schisms that have brought Americans to the point of near equal division between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ is now crippling the nation’s ability to manage the pandemic.

Admittedly there are structural issues in the allocation of powers between States and the Federal Government, but even our somewhat disjointed response looks to be in lock-step when compared to the total chaos in the USA.

There is no direction from the Whitehouse and there never really was. There are powers that the President could have exercised and given that the most bizarrely recalcitrant Governors are universally Republican he could have lent on them to do more. As it stands he spent more time attacking Democrat Governors as part of his failed re-election strategy (and I use that word extremely loosely).

True the American people are far less likely to comply with harsh lockdown measures, but can the temporary inconvenience of wearing a mask and maintaining social distance really be a civil rights issue in a time of existential threat?

Stupid mistakes have been made all around. The highly lauded, by the left, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo took the unfathomable decision, early on, to send ill patients back to aged care homes, resulting in an enormous death toll. The self-indulgence of the BLM and defund the police activists in holding mass protests, let alone attendant riots, was as idiotic as the staging of super-spreader Trump election rallies.

The paucity of the American health system, which along with gun control (or lack of) and the multi-headed hydra of their electoral system, is a seemingly intractable failure. One most of the rest of the developed world struggles to understand.

The power vacuum now created by the sulking looser denying the victor access to information to effect a transition is disaster upon disaster.

The upshot is that by the time Biden steps into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue more than 300,000 Americans will have succumbed to the virus. Yes, some would have died this year anyway, but really?

The new President faces an impossible task in gaining any control. He will have a Republican Senate and 27 Republican Governors, some of whom clearly see the pandemic as an ideological battle not a public health emergency.

The susceptibilities for bad COVID-19 outcomes – hospitalisation, intensive care and death – are known. Poor general health, obesity, old age and ordinary aged care. Who would have thought the USA would be a prime target for this virus?

Americans had better hope that the emerging vaccines are as successful as claimed and that some sort of cohesive policy to get them to almost everyone emerges. After all this is a nation where Congress had to mandate that health insurers cover the cost of COVID-19 tests and that free tests be provided to the uninsured. That did not mean that the uninsured got tests. Good luck spending all day, unpaid, lining up for a free test.

The central point is; America cannot, at present, be defeated in a war. Their massive military will see to that. But an invisible, silent enemy can tear them apart from the inside. An observation sure to have been made by existing and potential adversaries.

The rise of the echo chamber

By Alexander Corne

Social media and mobile devices provide unfettered access to a previously unfathomable array of views and information. Where our parents’ generation may have listened to one radio station and watched one of three or four TV channels, and typically had one newspaper delivered daily, our generation and that of our children’s is smothered by a proliferation of media choices.

Based in Melbourne I can read almost any newspaper in the free world, many of them for free (many of them translatable from tongues foreign to me at the touch of a button). With the right app on my phone I can listen to radio from across the world either live or as a curated podcast.

But with all this choice comes a headache. Where to look? What to listen to? What to believe?

Logically, media consumers gravitate towards what they believe to be true, what correlates with their political, ethical, moral or religious beliefs or pre-dispositions. Tune out what you don’t want to hear. You have choice, and the power to choose. So paradoxically while there is almost unlimited choice, the selection becomes narrower.

Where the newspaper of yesteryear would present a range of views, now you can select a media source that by-and-large reflects what you hold to be true. And that’s a problem. Because what if it isn’t true? But you just want or believe it to be true.

The next generation, deprived of this ability to assimilate a range of views is likely to become more polarised, more vociferously entrenched in their views, which is almost always not a good thing. If unexposed to competing views, how will they learn to distil information and rationalise it, to form an opinion based on facts rather than feelings?

At the granular individual level, millennials already routinely screen their incoming mobile calls. If they don’t recognise the number, they won’t answer. Fear of the unknown? Unable or unwilling to interact outside of their comfort zone or their digital friendship ‘tribe’? Incapable of communicating with a stranger? Ill-equipped to cognitively juggle unexpected ideas?

The incessant bombardment of the 20-minute news cycle is impossible to comprehend, parse or digest, so inevitably, the result is closing of the eyes and ears and pretending that everything that fails to fit a pre-determined tightly-controlled narrative is wrong or a threat.

With streaming services providing ad-free TV shows, uninterrupted by news or current affairs programmes, and what news that is consumed delivered by the now disgraced digital “platforms” – outed during the US elections as far more invasive and controlling of information than they had previously admitted – the route for a mix of balanced news to reach a broad populous is strangled.

The communications expert is charged with negotiating this information maze, cluttered with dead-ends and mis-directions that lead precisely nowhere, in order to deliver business messages that are vital to the ongoing health of the enterprise.

Comprehending the impact of a constantly moving media environment, uncovering the value and limiting the wastage is as much part of the role of today’s professional communicator as crafting the message. The fragmentation of the media has made that task challenging but the opportunity to connect with very specific audiences can offer significant rewards.

RMK+A constantly monitors the media environment and is skilled at connecting with target audiences to deliver business supportive messaging. The consultancy is also highly experienced at identifying and minimising wasted and counter productive communication.

Keeping an eye on fatal ‘optics’

By John Kananghinis

The demise of Christine Holgate at Australia Post should be a salutary lesson to all senior executives about the impact of ‘optics’ and understanding context.

Much has been written by business commentators about how hard done by she was and how the PM should not have hung her out to dry. I’m afraid that just demonstrates that they too don’t get it.

It is true that in the relative scheme of things the cost of the thank you watches was immaterial and it is also true that such rewards are not uncommon in the business world, particularly when a successful major project holds great opportunity for the organisation concerned. However, most businesses are either privately owned or owned by the shareholders. The key differentiator in the Holgate affair was that Aussie Post is a Government owned enterprise.

That is not to say that it is government funded. In fact generally it has earned a return for the government. But it is owned by the people of Australia. Not shareholders, not a foreign corporation not a small group of entrepreneurs, the people; you and I. As such the ‘optics’ of what can be interpreted as corporate largesse are very different. There is an expectation that the organisation should be serving the people, within reasonable commercial parameters, but not with the same freedom of a private/shareholder owned concern.

Ms Holgate’s incredulity at being questioned about the watches and her defence that it was not taxpayers money that was spent, even further cemented the view that she did not understand the public perception and expectation of the organisation she was running.

The public sees executives on near, or over, million dollar salaries, being further rewarded for ‘long hours’ and perceives such luxuries as a waste of their money. Money that would otherwise be available to provide better services or greater returns. They see luxury rewards being handed out  for doing a job that the executives are already richly compensed for.

Failing to understand that context, by thinking that she was running a truly commercial organisation, and not getting the ‘optics’ was Ms Holgate’s undoing.  The rest of the nonsense that followed, about hotels and limousines, was just the traditional media feeding frenzy once the blood was in the water.

The PM’s intervention, seen as reprehensible by some in the business media, was simply retail politics. He saw something that would not pass the much touted pub test and he used it to connect with the man and woman in the street. He effectively neutralised the opposition, who were attempting to provoke another instance of a perceived class warfare and anticipating, incorrectly, that he would let the matter run its course. Instead his political antenna were alert and he made a call that, politically, killed the matter on the spot. Let’s remember it was not he who orchestrated the gotcha moment in Senate Estimates, it was Labor’s Senator Kimberly Kitching. The take-down of ‘out of touch business elites’ is a non-denominational, gender neutral sport.

Understanding the public, political and media perception of a business and being aware of the ‘optics’, is a vital element of corporate communication and brand management.

RMK+Associates is highly experienced in helping organisations understand the appearance of their actions and words and crafting effective responses to emerging situations of risk.