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Coronavirus: Expert rates Ford government’s communications as ‘solid C- performance’

Click to play video: 'Dissecting the Ford government’s coronavirus pandemic communications strategy' Dissecting the Ford government’s coronavirus pandemic communications strategy
WATCH ABOVE: It's been nearly a year since a state of emergency was declared in Ontario. Since then we've seen Premier Doug Ford on a regular basis delivering news about the province's pandemic response. So all these months later, we're taking a closer look at his performance. Travis Dhanraj gets insight from a public relations point of view – Mar 4, 2021

For nearly a year, Premier Doug Ford and his government have been at the helm of handling a crisis they had no idea was coming when they took the reins at Queen’s Park.

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the agenda forcing the government to put aside some election promises and priorities for the time being.

Ford has been omnipresent at news conferences, photo opportunities and on social media through it all, but have the government’s public communications been effective? Wojtek Dabrowski said yes and no.

Read more: Ontario’s mixed messaging on coronavirus is leading to distrust in province, experts say

Dabrowski has worked at some of the country’s largest companies as a communications specialist, including Manulife and RBC. He now runs his own firm, Provident Communications.

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“I think it’s a solid C- performance from the Ontario government,” Dabrowski said when asked about the overall efforts.

When it comes to the government’s successes, he praised constant access to Ford and other high-level officials.

“Throughout it all, having officials visible day in, day out is essential to maintaining and increasing the public’s confidence in the government’s response,” Dabrowski said.

He said another win is Ford’s ability to empathize.

“We’ve seen the premier tear up, echo the frustrations of people and use Main Street language to describe the challenges of managing this crisis,” Dabrowski said.

But he also said there have been major gaps and missteps with public messaging. Complexity, Dabrowski said, is “the single biggest challenge and confusion driver.”

“From overly complicated colour-coded systems to the lack of basic answers to everyday questions like what’s open and closed, how and when will I be vaccinated etc. The government has never stopped to strip back its messaging to an easily understandable essence,” he said.

Karman Wong, a former journalist who now works as a crisis communications expert, said she agrees with Dabrowski’s assessment. She said early on in the pandemic, the government was forgiven by the public while they tried to find their footing.

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“(But) that goodwill has been squandered. People have simply tuned out. They’re overloaded with information and scientific recommendations that conflict with decision-making,” Wong said.

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“There’s an attempt at transparency, but a lack of clarity when officials are asked about data being used to make decisions or benchmarks.”

She pointed to Dr. David Williams’ style of addressing the public as a problem.

“His answers are often meandering and convoluted, which then gives the impression of being evasive. Communications need to be delivered in a clear and concise way or trust is eroded,” Wong said.

“I have no doubt that Dr. Williams, the chief medical officer of health, is well-meaning, but that doesn’t cut it when you’re one of the primary spokespeople during a pandemic.”

When it comes to conveying information to Ontario’s multicultural communities, Wong said there has been a “glaring gap” because many don’t watch the regular news conferences and don’t consume traditional news sources.

Read more: Communications ‘chaos’ causes confusion at Ottawa COVID-19 testing sites

“There needs to be better engagement with minority communities, communicating in a culturally relevant way and dealing with barriers to access and information because if there’s a vacuum of information, that allows misinformation to spread,” she said.

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Communications issues were also examined by Ontario’s auditor general in the first of a two-part, in-depth look at the provincial government’s handling of the pandemic. In that report, she said local officials and entities were impacted by “confus[ing]” messaging and reported learning about some major decisions without warning.

“Local medical officers of health informed us that they were confused by provincial politicians delivering public health advice in place of the chief medical officer of health,” a report from Lysyk’s office said on Nov. 25.

“Public health units and other impacted stakeholders were not always made aware of provincial decisions that impacted their operations prior to these decisions being announced publicly. This left these parties unprepared to act in a timely manner.”

Read more: Auditor general highlights Ontario’s ‘confusing,’ indirect communications on COVID-19 in new report

The report also cited a September study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal that found messaging in Ontario surrounding the state of the pandemic and recommendations was “less coordinated” and inconsistent compared to British Columbia, where that province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Bonnie Henry, received praise in some public circles for her work as a lead spokesperson.

It was found that elected officials and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, “sometimes convey[ed] conflicting messages in separate briefings.”
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“During the first wave of the pandemic in the spring and summer of 2020, the premier of Ontario was often the spokesperson on health recommendations, leading daily press conferences, with the chief medical officer of health or the associate chief medical officer of health being called on to reiterate advice afterward,” it said, noting it was the opposite approach in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.

Ontario’s opposition parties have all raised criticisms surrounding pandemic-related communications.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the head of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, Gen. (Retired) Rick Hiller, has struggled to communicate succinctly.

Read more: 5 things to know about the auditor general’s report on Ontario’s COVID-19 response

“I think when it comes to General Hillier himself, he’s had some challenges in terms of communication but no different than the government at large on pretty much in every issue,” she said.

“The problem that we have had in our province is that the government has had very very poor communication strategy. They have been confusing, and they have been difficult to understand, and they have not been clear. I think that’s not just General Hellier, I think that’s the entire government, unfortunately, and it’s been a disservice to Ontarians.”

Liberal Party Leader and former cabinet minister Steven Del Duca told Global News Ford’s management in recent months has been “getting more and more confusing.”

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“Ontario families don’t know what he’s asking of them and they don’t know when the vaccines are coming,” he said.

“This is the definition of failed leadership. He needs to put forward one clear plan on how each of Ontario’s 34 public health units will roll out the vaccine. Right now, each region is on a different timeline with different priority lists and booking systems.

Read more: Ontario family physicians seeking more details from government on COVID-19 vaccine rollout

“People want to know when and where they will be able to receive a vaccination, and Doug Ford continues to leave them in the dark.”

Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, said one of the problems is the government’s constant tendency to make announcements about announcements to come.

“The premier has treated this pandemic like a game show. Instead of teasing big announcements and sitting on critical information, he needs to be clear, transparent and decisive in communicating with the public,” he said.

Meanwhile, both Wong and Dabrowski said improvement is possible when it comes to government communications in the months ahead if clarity, consistent and concise messaging become priorities as Ontario tries to move beyond the pandemic.

— With files from Nick Westoll

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