Old Lessons

Old Lessons, New Crisis: Trump’s Coronavirus Address And News Conference


Leonard Zwelling

         It was almost 25 years ago now, on a Saturday, when then MD Anderson president John Mendelsohn, his wife Ann and I were given media training. The training by professionals in crisis management and communication was a prize won by Mrs. Mendelsohn at a silent auction. I was included because I had become the spokesperson for MD Anderson when the institution had to come before the media on matters of potential embarrassment. A recent such incident involving an FDA warning letter to an MD Anderson investigator had forced me into service before the local news cameras. The leaders of public relations at the institution thought I could use some additional instruction on how to address the media. They were correct.

         It was an all day session, rigorous and intense, but the most critical takeaway for me was how to frame a message of internal communication at a time of an external threat.

         The United States is in such a place right now. The coronavirus infection has now been declared a pandemic and the case numbers are rising in America. Major sporting events are being cancelled and most gatherings where people might be in close proximity are being postponed. Maximizing “social distance” is the watchword of the day. While the coronavirus is technically an external threat, it is here now and the Trump Administration is expected to lead the American response that used to be the one on which the rest of the world counted. Shaking hands with the CEOs of big companies in the Rose Garden while in a tightly gathered group is exactly the wrong message. Not clever! If Mr. Trump’s supporters need more evidence of his unique blend of arrogance and small thinking, this is it.

         The messaging for the leader in a crisis I learned that day was simple:

  1. I have a vision for the future.
  2. I have a plan to get us there.
  3. It will not be easy.
  4. It will be worth it.

So when President Trump got on TV on Wednesday, March 11 to address the nation about the coronavirus, that was what I expected to hear. He had a vision for a corona-free America and a plan to get there via widespread testing, the development of new therapeutics and, of course, eventually a widely-available vaccine.

We are still early in the American response to the coronavirus. The lack of widespread testing has made defining the full extent of the threat unknowable and thus pressed local officials to err on the side of caution by limiting the size of meetings, curtailing air travel, and shifting as much work as possible to the home.

Mr. Trump had one job Wednesday night. Calm the fears of America. He failed as the long lines at the local Houston supermarket check out stations revealed an hour after he finished his Wednesday remarks. He calmed no one.

Here’s what he should have said.

“I have a vision of a strong post-corona America, now responding as one to the threat of this external invader. It may have originated on foreign soil, but it is here now and we must deal with it. My administration has a plan to roll out rapid testing. Some ten million kits have been distributed by the CDC and local testing can be done at the request of any doctor with results available in hours. I have removed all restrictions on any certified lab’s ability to test starting now.”

(This would necessitate having actually done this, which it does not appear that the government has done, although on Friday the first baby steps were being taken.)

“The coming weeks are going to be trying. Life as we know it in America will be disrupted. Working from home for those who are able will be preferred. Safe social distances will be advised for all and for those in service industries who cannot practice social distancing, we will make masks available.

“All hospitals in all communities in the country are on high alert. Their intensive care units are ready and they all have sufficient protective gear for the caregivers.”

(This too ought to be true, but it is not as the leaders of Mass General and UCLA indicated on Meet the Press on March 15. Had the Trump Administration not stripped the departments tasked with such readiness that President Obama had originated after the Ebola threat, perhaps this would not be such a problem now.)

“Our efforts now to pull together will be rewarded by keeping as many people as safe as possible and by caring for the ill and minimizing the most severe of the adverse effects of this new virus. Our efforts today will be rewarded in the near future.”

That’s what President Trump should have said instead of blaming a “foreign virus” and restricting travel from some of Europe in a move that makes absolutely no sense, especially given the fact that a worldwide pandemic has been declared already. The virus isn’t about to come in. It’s here. It cannot be kept out. Containment time is over. It’s mitigation at best and shaking hands is just a bad idea. What’s wrong with this guy?

And the result of his silly Wednesday speech is a massive influx of Americans returning from Europe overwhelming the capacities of the major airports like O’Hare and creating the exact crowd density we have been warned to avoid. Nice job, Donald.

Once again, Mr. Trump has failed to reassure the American people. What is most clear is that he is incompetent when it comes to crisis management and that we are in for a rough ride, physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. The entire 2020 campaign process is likely to be disrupted as big rallies will become a thing of the past for a while.

The lessons I learned that Saturday all those years ago still apply. Vision, plan, hardship, reward. That’s what leaders need to say, but Mr. Trump is no leader. He’s a carnival barker on reality TV and right now, reality bites!

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