The custom of political leaders showing up in disaster zones is relatively modern. Formerly, disaster response proceeded with little input from federal agencies (generally) and heads of government (specifically). Instead, they were almost entirely state and local government as well as non-governmental agency interventions.
In the U.S., for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the prompting of Louisiana Senator Russell Long, broke decades of precedent by visiting the city of New Orleans after the category-four storm, Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Since then, the practice has become pervasive, as more and more federal money gets earmarked for disaster response and relief.
Indeed, nowadays, it’s hard to point to a severe weather event after which a government head did not visit to show empathy for the victims, support the disaster effort, and perhaps (just maybe) bolster his or her political fortunes. Case in point: the Australian bush fires have elicited disaster-zone visits from Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, as well as public statements from a host of political leaders in the majority and the Opposition.
These acts, however, haven’t been without controversy. It turns out, actions taken by politicians during a disaster come with just as much risk as opportunity. And as the expectation that political leaders visit disaster sites becomes the norm, the list of things those leaders shouldn’t do will only increase. For now, though, let’s keep our list of actions and statements politicians shouldn’t take or make during a disaster to the essentials:
- Don’t go on vacation. You might get away with not visiting the disaster site–though, at this point, we’d advise against it –but you should under no circumstances take a relaxing family vacation after officially declaring a national disaster. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is learning this rule the hard way. Not only was the Morrison family trip to Hawaii cut short, because of the bush fires, but now, back at home, he has to deal with the political fallout from his perceived in difference to the plight of bush fire victims.
- Don’t ask for donations for your political party. Nor is the curtailed family trip the only public relations faux pas the Prime Minister is accused of having committed. On 3 January, Morrison released a video to his social media accounts, listing out new military-backed measures to respond to the bush fires. No problem, there, though some state and local respondents griped that they had not been informed of the additional measures beforehand. Far less well received, however, was the fact that the original posts also included a link to donate to the Prime Minister’s own political party. The Opposition, naturally, had a field day.
- Don’t attack the meteorologists. Being on the hook for the effective response to natural disasters, like the Australian bush fires, might lead politicians to get a little hot under the collar. But they should under no circumstances vent their spleen on neutral, third-party experts, like meteorologists. Liberal Party back bencher, Craig Kelly, didn’t get the memo when he went on the U.K. television show, “Good Morning Britain.” There, he sparred with meteorologist Laura Tobin. After Tobin, citing carbon-emissions statistics placing Australia among the world’s worst emitters, accused Kelly of being “a climate denier,” Kelly hit back on social media, referring to Tobin as an “ignorant pommy weather girl.” Kelly’s comments sparked outrage, especially since Tobin, far from being ignorant of the issues, has a degree in physics and meteorology, years of experience as an aviation forecaster with the Royal Air Force, not to mention over a decade-plus tenure as a broadcast meteorologist. Kelly would go on to apologize for his comments and delete the offending post.
- Don’t lavish praise precipitately. Of course, when it comes to committing crisis communications’ gaffes, this recent crop of Australian political leaders isn’t the first. Indeed, the actual and PR responses to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina remain infamous in that regard, with former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head, Michael Brown, widely considered the face of the woeful effort. That was until President George W. Bush himself stepped in it. While touring the Katrina disaster site, the president publicly praised his FEMA chief, jocularly telling him, “Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.” Unfortunately, not too many people agreed with the president’s assessment. Brownie would be out in fewer that two weeks. And the comment and overall, perceived mismanagement of the relief effort are widely seen as the beginning of the end of President Bush’s second-term political fortunes:a year later, his party would lose its Congressional majorities in a rout.
- Don’t make it about you. Political leaders aren’t the only actors in the hot seat during a disaster, either. Corporate leaders often have to face the music, too. It’s the rare corporate leader that’s able to turn a crisis into an opportunity, with a savvy command of media relations. But the majority are at least able to wade out the storm. Then, there are those, like BP’s former CEO, Tony Hayward, that don’t. Hayward was the man in charge during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that caused one of the worst man made natural disasters in the Gulf coast. Already facing push back for his previous comments during the relief effort, Hayward received widespread condemnation when he told a reporter that “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” He’d be out before the year was over.
The moral of the story:with the increase in kind and intensity of natural disasters, political and corporate leaders will remain in the media spotlight for the foreseeable future. What, then, should leaders do? Crafting crisis communications that inform the public, show compassion for victims, and don’t alienate key stakeholders is a start, so be ready to commit the time and effort. The alternative: revising your C.V.
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