Last week, local and state officials announced new, severe restrictions as officials grapple with rising cases of Covid-19 and rapidly-filling hospital emergency rooms nearing capacity.
Especially during a public health crisis like this one, it is very important for government officials to be very clear in the information they are presenting to the public and use language that does not unnecessarily frighten people or set off a panic.
Two examples from last week are the latest proof that government officials are failing spectacularly on both accounts.
In a dramatic evening press conference on December 2, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “it’s time to cancel everything” in announcing new Covid restrictions in the city.
The city’s proclamation ominously states, “all persons living within the city of Los Angeles are hereby ordered to remain in their homes.” It also proclaims that, “all travel, including, without limitation, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit is prohibited.”
But the sharp words in the announcement and dramatic language in the city’s official order, blasted out to city residents via e-mail and text alerts, were immediately met with mass confusion on social media that triggered a mini panic in the city that evening.
Almost immediately, city officials were forced to backtrack and “clarify.”
KTLA anchor Frank Buckley reported on Twitter that, in a statement sent to the station, “the City uploaded the most recent version today to match (Los Angeles) County’s current order that was enacted earlier this week . . . The two orders are identical.”
The next day, Gov. Gavin Newsom took his turn at the podium, announcing a new regional stay-at-home order, dividing the state into five regions. Restrictions would be imposed once remaining hospital ICU capacity in the region dips below 15 percent.
Newsom delivered another long-and-rambling statement that has become the hallmark of his regular Covid-19 press conferences, saying a lot yet saying very little.
Virtually every reporter question that followed sought clarifications of the confusing order and the Governor’s long-winded, confusing words. Newsom and California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly repeatedly told reporters they “welcomed the opportunity to clarify” their remarks, which continued on Twitter long after the press conference concluded.
Several reporters on Twitter noted confusion about when the new regional scheme would take effect. Others noted confusion over how the order would impact schools – and the lack of discussion of school openings and closures in the first place.
Tweeting after Newsom’s press conference, veteran Los Angeles Times reporter John Myers observed, “I welcome others to offer additional information but, as I write this some 3 hours after Gavin Newsom’s event, it’s entirely unclear whether Californians should expect their region to shut down soon, sort of soon, kind of soon, maybe soon…”
The confusion didn’t stop that day. Two major changes to Newsom’s first order were announced without any public fanfare at all, adding to the confusion.
On Sunday, just before Newsom’s new order was to take effect, the state “walked back” a requirement that grocery stores could only operate at 20 percent of capacity, upping the capacity limits to 35 percent (down from the current 50 percent). Adding to the confusion, the Times reported that, “on Friday evening, the (California Grocers Association) said in a statement it did not think Newsom’s order applied to grocery stores.”
Yesterday, the Times reported that “following outcry from parents and some lawmakers, California has reversed course on closing playgrounds to contain a surge in coronavirus cases.” Yet, the updated guidance was released in the morning, and “officials with the California Department of Public Health did not immediately comment on the rationale behind that change.”
One of the toughest tasks for a speechwriter is writing a speech during tough times with the goal of transforming public opinion. Often, you as the speechwriter have very little time to put together the rhetorical case.
Words always matter for elected officials. But they matter so much more during a time of crisis like this one. When a mayor or governor delivers a speech on Covid 19, they need to rise to the occasion with their rhetoric to rally a skeptical public to their side because lives literally depend upon it.
While Newsom and Garcetti surely hoped the public watching at home would be nodding in agreement and ready to follow the course they prescribed, most Californians scratched their heads or shook their fists in anger.
As a former speechwriter, my advice to them is simple – level with Californians.
Make the case for the tough measures you believe are warranted. Show us the facts, data, and other reasoning that you are using to make your decisions. Lead by example and actually follow the rules you are prescribing for a change.
Do everything out in the open. Announce decisions in the light of day and shout them from the mountaintops so everyone knows what the new orders are.
Use, clear and any easy to understand language. There should no ambiguous language used in the public health and executive orders and in the public statements by elected and appointed officials announcing them. It must be absolutely clear to Californians what the rules are and how they will apply.
And most importantly, be honest with Californians about what we face in the days ahead and why you believe the prescribed course of action is vital for saving lives.
Giving a rambling speech telling people that we need to “meet the moment” or unnecessarily scaring people after hours isn’t going to get millions of unhappy Californians to cooperate.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.