Crisis communication shapes reputations in Hawke’s Bay water calamity

Lawrence Yule, Hawke's Bay campylobacter

Image courtesy of TVNZ

District and Regional Councils at the eye of the storm around the recent contamination of a New Zealand town’s water supply have come under fire for the timeliness and effectiveness of their communication around this issue – now widely acknowledged to be New Zealand’s largest public health crisis to date.

Thousands of people in Hawke’s Bay were made seriously ill last month by a nasty tummy bug, campylobacter, making its way into their underground water supply from what is now thought to be animal faecal matter (cow, pig and sheep poo, and the like).

Ratepayers and media have generally been scathing about the way communication has been handled. Sometimes with justification but at other times rather unfairly, in our view, given the complexities involved.

But there has been one stand-out in all of this. Hastings District Council Mayor Lawrence Yule. He has been nothing short of brilliant and, in my book at least, would be the run-away favourite as the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand’s Communicator of the Year – if it was still running the award. A side note: perhaps something could be done at the next PRINZ Awards to recognise the way Mr Yule has communicated throughout this event?

Mr Yule has pressed into play a raft of techniques that are highly effective in pressurised or aggressive interview situations

Mr Yule, who also happens to be president of Local Government New Zealand, the Association that represents and advocates for the interests of local authorities in New Zealand, has pressed into play a raft of techniques that are highly effective in pressurised or aggressive interview situations:

  • He has corrected incorrect statements early and in detail (at 0’19” and 5’20” here)
  • He has stood his ground to make important points (at 1’43” and 5’56” here), but with an endearing degree of grace and humility
  • He hasn’t ‘bulldusted’. He has resisted the temptation to provide answers to questions he isn’t able to answer properly. If he didn’t know something he said so and explained why, rather than trying to blather his way out of a situation (from 2’18 here)
  • He hasn’t tried to duck tough or awkward questions. He dealt with them and then used his considerable ‘bridging’ skills to deliver the messages he wanted to deliver (as at 3’05” here and from 5’42” here)
  • He has taken time before interviews to think about, and then use, simple language for complicated topics (as at 3’39” here)
  • He’s been firm, but calm and respectful, under fire (as at 5’56” here)
  • He has been prepared to assign responsibility where it needs to be assigned (as at 5’56” here) yet…
  • He has been prepared to shoulder personal responsibility where it might reasonably be expected for him to do so (as at 7’20” here and 0’43” here)

This final point is important. As Andrew Austin, editor of Hawke’s Bay Today, said on Morning Report (from 1’26” here):

“He was quite up-front (in a community debate on the issue) – he’s got sort of a disarming manner in which he sort of fronts up and takes personal responsibility on himself, and that did go some way to appease some people…”

Mr Yule has ticked the box against each of the Central Cs of successful crisis communication etched into the hearts of those of us who protect and build reputations in times of tumult.

Commitment

He has front-footed the issues from Day One and has been a high-profile source of reliable and accurate information throughout. His accessibility for media interviews and for public meetings and consultations has earned him widespread praise (“As many meetings as the community needs”) as well as the stated respect of some pretty hard-baked media commentators (as at 7’17” here)

Compassion

His concern for his ratepayers, his staff and those who were taken ill by this outbreak was stated consistently and reported with equal regularity. His compassion was underscored by his humility – he has conducted himself throughout with extraordinary patience, dignity and restraint in the face of some pretty hard-core provocation.

Credibility

He consistently has told us that things would unfold in a certain way and, each time they have, his credibility has been boosted. When a sample taken from an emergency-supply water tanker was reported as contaminated he defused the situation by explaining that this could well be a false positive, as is frequently the case with initial readings, and this proved to be the case.

Capability

His ability to explain complicated situations patiently, reasonably, simply and well has played relatively well with ratepayers in Hawke’s Bay and helped cement his reputation as someone who has his head around the issues at stake.

Consistency

The consistency of Mr Yule’s performance has been one of the most striking aspects of this incident. From the messaging to his community and the quality of the information he has provided, to the reasonable, humble and reassuring tone and tenor of his presentations – they have all been absolutely consistent throughout.

Clarity

Throughout, he has explained complicated situations patiently, reasonably, simply and well, such as why water supplies weren’t chlorinated when first indications of contamination appeared (from 2’03” here and from 5’42” here). And like his description (from 3’40” here) of why two of the three bores used by the Hastings District Council have been considered safe until now. Also: his explanation of the campylobacter bugs involved (from 2’15” here).

Control

Finally, all the factors outlined above have contributed to the perception of a comforting level of control over the situation. In a crisis situation control comes second only to the provision of information as the thing that stakeholders of any organisation demand the most.

It’s a well-known irony of crisis management that it’s not the incident itself that counts, but how you deal with it. Horrible as it certainly was for those involved, the Hawke’s Bay campylobacter outbreak of 2016 demonstrated clearly how effective crisis communication can help build and enhance reputations even while others are being trashed and sunk.

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