Peter Rekers Interview: Public Information in the COVID-19 Era

By Alexander Lee-Rekers

Interviewer: To begin with, can you briefly outline your areas of expertise?

Peter Rekers: I am an Australian-based crisis and disaster consultant with extensive real-world experience. My first experience in emergency was as a volunteer firefighter in the early 80’s while I was still at University doing a degree in Media Studies. My early career was spent in theatre where I was a sound engineer and stage manager, including being stage manager to the Pope. It was a great place to start learning about crisis management as the show must go on, and so that real pressure of troubleshooting and fixing things on the fly is still useful today. After that, I spent a number of years in the Australian Navy where a different type of management experience was developed. It was also a time when I experienced nine cyclones at sea and many other challenges. Later, as a Naval Reservist, I did two tours to Iraq, the second of which was as the Coalition Media Director. I looked after all the local and international media that were in Iraq and also provided 24/7 liaison to the world’s media. I then spent some time back in emergency services before setting up my own consultancy, Crisis Ready, which has been operating for over 10 years. I work with a variety of clients, including Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office where I’m helping them with the re-write of their Hazard Mitigation Plan. So, while I do have significant operational experience in emergencies and disasters, I suppose my key focus is on the communications aspects of these. And while I think this is partially due to my background in media studies, I’m also keenly committed to the idea that communications is one of the biggest challenges we have in disaster operations. It’s often the one we don’t think about until it’s become too much of a headache.

I: How are you finding the response to COVID-19, both here in Australia and abroad?

P: I think it’s varying. I’m seeing some very good responses, and some fairly ordinary responses. It’s a particularly interesting field, because many of us have been involved in pandemic planning for, frankly, decades, and they actually follow a fairly predictable path. COVID-19 is, in many ways, doing exactly that. So if governments or departments had plans in place, then they’d probably be in a much better position right now.

I: Are there reasons such plans aren’t so readily in place?

P: One of the frustrating characteristics of pandemics is their infrequency. They are so rare that they are not something we tend to exercise or train for and as a result, a lot of jurisdictions have been caught off guard. One of the best responses I’ve seen—and this is by no means a statement about where Pierce College is located—is from Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee. The comments, messages and language choice coming out of the Governor’s office are really interesting, and I’m sure very effective.

I: And here in Australia?

P: In Australia, we’ve got a different political and geographic set-up, and so there are greater challenges. We only have seven states and territories, and therefore the heads of those states—who we call Premiers—are much more powerful than their U.S. Equivalents. Because of this, we often see a power-play between federal and state governments, and that results in their messages and responses becoming out of sync when communicating with the public.

I: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about public information: what’s effective, what’s not effective… Why is PI such a frequent stumbling block for governments and agencies?

P: Because governments and agencies often fail to implement public information with any thought to strategy. PI is treated as a sort of ready-made commodity—coming straight out of the emergency operations centre with clearance to go to the public—and yet in many cases the language hasn’t been refined, and no thought has been given to how it’s being put out there. We’re going, for example, straight to the media or social media because we think that’s the right idea. To think strategically, within an incident management team or command system, you’re able to identify and address the objectives that are most in need of fixing—often within a crucial 24 hour period. Not enough organizations think: “What is our objective?” and “How are we going to achieve it?” We seem to pump out information to the public and wonder why it’s not achieving what we want it to achieve.

I: Is it safe to say we’re seeing these trends in current messaging at home and abroad?

P: Right now, a good example would be rules around “social distancing”, “shelter in place”. We’re not seeing people respond to this information because the messaging we’re giving them is either coming from the wrong spokespeople, the wrong media, the wrong channel of how to get that information to the public or the wrong language. We’re not speaking in a way that they’re going to react.

I: What sort of messaging is the most effective?

P: The most effective messaging aims to reach the emotional part of the brain. If you think in terms of left and right-brained activity, the side of the brain we want to reach is not the logical, mathematical side, but the side that deals with emotion, images and stories. This is because the same parts of the brain control risk-taking behavior. Again, I’ll exemplify Governor Inslee’s office. Don’t talk about “shelter in place”, talk about “looking after your loved ones”. Talk about caring about people and staying home together. That sort of language is going to be far more effective than logical terms—even if they are, technically, correct.

I: What other strategies should be implemented? And where should they be coming from?

P: The number one thing is co-ordination of messaging. We need to be very clear and ‘scientific’ about how we deal with a pandemic, so co-ordination is paramount: co-ordination between the political leaders and the health experts. Strong leadership will reassure people—which doesn’t mean good political leadership, because we know from other research that politicians are among the least trusted people in our societal structures. And when you have them speak in front of a room full of journalists—another group sadly regarded as unreliable—they can be delivering the perfect message and still wonder why they failed to reach the public.

I: So what makes for effective leadership in a crisis?

P: Leadership has to go beyond the political. Our health leadership in this case would be much more important. Or, really, any person who can lead us—that we look up to and are inspired by: it could even be a movie star. The question is: who are the people going to listen to and respond to?

I: We seem to be witnessing a lot of panic in response to the virus. What do you think is causing this, and how might it best be mitigated?

P: The near-exclusive reason it occurs—and this is sadly relevant to our current situation—is when

contradictory advice is issued by leadership. In the context of COVID-19, we’re hearing the word “panic” a lot more than usual, despite there being plenty of research telling us that panic is actually a rare occurrence in an emergency or disaster. Panic is best thought of as people making emotional decisions as opposed to logical ones. People are making emotional decisions—that’s something we need to shift them away from. If you take the hoarding of toilet paper as an example, I read that as breaking down into three groups of people: the first group saw an opportunity and bought up on the idea that they could sell it and make a profit. The second group reacted to this information rationally and left it alone. The third group, however, saw the ‘entrepreneurs’ on the news at the same time they were hearing a conflicting “all is well” from leadership. It didn’t add up; it didn’t make sense to them.

I: I’d like to move to a slightly different topic, that of SPOT: Single Point Of Truth. What are your thoughts on this concept in regard to the rise of social media and its prevalence in contemporary society/crises?

P: The Single Point Of Truth is an aspirational position that lead agencies, in a disaster, want to be seen as in the eyes of the public. Take any health department right now: they want to be viewed as the SPOT, where everyone will turn to them for the right answers, and can co-ordinate their messaging to eliminate confusion and therefore panic. The reality is, we haven’t been able to do that for roughly a decade now: both social media and ‘legacy’ media—the “old” media—have made that incredibly difficult. On social media, everybody’s posting about how you should wash your hands, or the correct recipe for hand sanitizer, and there’s variations on all of them. In Australia, media agencies are publishing pages on where to get the best information on COVID-19, directing you to another source entirely. They should not be presenting themselves as a point of truth. SPOT is still a concept I hear about, despite it being a virtual impossibility; many lead agencies still think it’s achievable.

I: What should these agencies be doing instead?

P: It’s always good to acknowledge these sources are out there, but to try and lead people to the number-one source. Governments and agencies often fail to see a media conference as an opportunity to talk to the media as well; not everything has to be said to the public. We can appeal to the media directly to help us get important and accurate information out. Dr. Michael Ryan from the WHO made a fantastic statement the other day about how before we have a vaccine or medication, all we’ve got is risk communication. This is exactly why we need the media involved in that. And the same is true for social media: companies should be guiding people to a single place that contains the number-one source, whether it be on a state, national or even international level like the WHO.

I: Why aren’t there more stringent guidelines to this kind of messaging?

P: In terms of guidelines, a lot of what we do in emergency communications is not strictly enforceable. We have different jurisdictions with their own rights; a governor can speak on behalf of their state, but so can a member of congress, so can leadership, so can Health. Even private industry: the likes of Bill Gates can speak with some authority. It’s difficult to try and control, so the best measure is to ensure that extensive training and exercise are performed in advance—of how different departments and entities will work together. In my own experience, it’s very rare that I see that an elected official or a CEO get involved in an exercise; this is troubling, because when the plan is actually implemented, they don’t know what’s happening. On the day of a major exercise, they will often come into the room and not know where to begin. They haven’t worked for it.

I: Can you speak to the certificate course you’re currently helping to develop in response to these topics?

P: I’m delighted to be joining the Center of Excellence for Homeland Security Emergency Management, which is housed at Pierce College in Lakewood, Washington. I will be helping to develop an online course in Crisis Communication, which will be delivered through the Center’s HSEM Institute. Students will be awarded Continuing Education credits through Pierce College’s Community and Continuing Education program. I have been in contact with the Center for a couple of years now, and I’m very impressed with their approach to helping the all-hazards emergency industry when it comes to staying up-to-date on trends and new innovative ways to deliver education to students. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word “credible”. Credibility is vital in the sort of field I operate in, but it also gives me a nice acronym—CRED–which covers the four different types of comms we need to identify and strengthen: CRISIS, RISK, EMERGENCY and DISASTER. If I can build up the skills and understanding of what those four different types of communication are, students will be well-equipped to do a better job of public information in their jurisdiction when they return to them. I think it’s important to understand the subtle differences of the kinds of communication and how they’re actioned: a disaster is an emergency that has impacted an entire community, whereas a crisis is when we deal with outrage and outrage management. If we can make the outrage go away because people understand response is doing the best it can, then we can go back to disaster communication—a much easier situation to manage.

I: And what sort of experience can your students expect?

P: My approach to teaching is intensely practical. Not only will we explore the above concepts, I’ll be sending them away with tools, templates and planning ideas so they can return to their jurisdictions ready to implement their new knowledge and understanding. It should be an interesting course, and a lot of fun.

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a writer, director and producer based in Sydney, Australia. He completed his Masters in Writing For Performance at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), and has since written work for the Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP), the Kings Cross Theatre and The Walt Disney Company. In addition to his work, Alexander maintains a presence in academia lecturing on film criticism, history and screenwriting at NIDA, the University of Wollongong and ATYP—where he is currently under commission for the work “Lights In The Park”.