Covid-19: Press conferences can cause confusion when speakers go rogue

This was the riposte from fictional President Schwarzenegger in the 2007 Simpsons Movie. He randomised a critical decision, because to him leaders act, not think or read or consider.

Malaysia’s leaders are wise to go the opposite way when they speak to the public through the media.

Exactly in those situations, reading is good, especially confronted by the press corp. Already in year two of Covid-19, reminders ought to be unnecessary. However, the politicians are still shooting their mouths off.

This new MCO 3.0 has been a shambles.

Work permits are debated but long after decided by WhatsApp groups, while essentials are seemingly mysteries as supermarkets arbitrarily shut sections selling “non-essentials” to evade summons. 

Every eighth Malaysian has a different understanding of essentials today, or who gets to work or from whom to receive the permission from. Joggers must measure what constitutes their neighbourhood as those living in SOHOs (small office, home office) pretend not to work when inside their own residences, less they risk breaking the law.

There are multiple train-wrecks proceeding with clear abandon and in stages oblivious to their minders, members of the highest bodies to run the Covid-19 response.

That these lack clarity is an understatement. It’s not that the rakyat disagree as much as they are unsure what they can agree with.

It seems leaders decide somewhat, explain some parts and then meet subsequent criticisms halfway leaving no one satisfied. This is not about malicious behaviour, rather foolish behaviour.

Stay in zone

Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob during a press conference at the Perdana Putra building in Putrajaya, May 11, 2021. — Bernama pic
Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob during a press conference at the Perdana Putra building in Putrajaya, May 11, 2021. — Bernama pic

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How can government do better?

Accept pandemic truths. First, Covid-19 statements hold every Malaysian resident’s attention — never have expatriates asked so often contexts of news reports — and second, the statements’ intervals are brief.

Miscommunications multiply as rapid announcements supersede previous updates in minutes.

Which is why the National Security Council would be well-advised to keep things simple.

By the way, this column focuses not on the NSC’s decisions but why the misunderstanding reigns.

They are right to use one minister, Ismail Sabri, to handle press conferences with the prime minister doing cameos. In theory, fewer voices reduce mistakes.

One administration, one voice.

When Defence Minister Ismail Sabri speaks, the whole administration speaks.

Read prepared texts and rely heavily on the prepared talking points — notes, information & reminders on how to tackle expected questions and segues.  

The operative term being “prepared.” The coms team already recognises pitfalls and navigate ministers to safe responses and options out of dangerous ones. They are doing their job. 

However in university and on the press floor, they were not trained to deal with the jumbo jet — not that one has seen the inside of one in these pandemic days — egos of politicians.

Which is how leaders mess up ready-for-use material. They wander off message.

Malaysian leaders consistently ad lib. They assume they can talk their way out when defending policy statements or explaining them. The choice of words matters because reporters can take a different tone or message when leaders take liberties with the statements. All because the minister thought saying it this other way was much better, or when answering a question strayed from the talking points.

Just because he felt like it.

This is a throwback to the past where government-associated media looked past erroneous statements and focused on the minister’s positives. The minister, not news, was the objective back then.

This has changed, with alternative media and myriad independent sources for information. The latter especially look for the worst of what is said.

YBs should pay attention or wait for their political obituaries to be written.

Kinda understand is no understand

In a way, the demand for Covid-19 news means politicians get the ears of the people frequently. Easy to position as a rising political force. The bad part is, because the rakyat pay attention, the mistakes are hard to ignore.

The ongoing confusion over the need to update the MySejahtera App is case in point. While the minister has explained several times, Malaysians are still unsure if it is a crime not to update the app. However, standing as a sore thumb, if updating is mandatory is owning a smartphone also mandatory? Are those who write their names in the shop registry failing a requirement, because the manual sign-ins are not reconciled by the store owners to the national system?

None of the explanations have been unequivocal on the matter, and worse, many think the government might just change their minds in the days to come.

Further, the government should delineate between what is ordered and asked when they speak to the public.

If asking, it should be done politely.

The philosophical argument is that power emanates from people and therefore as the true bosses of a country, the temporary custodians — coalition in charge — if they want something without the use of laws then they should ask nicely.

If that’s too abstract, here’s the practical reason.

Asking 32 million people to do something extra, then they should say please and thank you.  People like to be thanked.

Months ahead

Flattening curves and vaccination are likely dominant conversations for the next months at least.

Our people are already pandemic fatigued. Impatience is in the air.

While at the start they accepted any government would be overwhelmed, as were governments around the world, recovery is the word people prefer dominating conversations now. Especially with news of normality elsewhere and soon in Singapore.

Words are not just words anymore, so pick those to pass to the media.

The way our leaders handle the press which then sets the news cycle has a huge effect on morale and the mood of the country.

The previous setbacks are lessons but there are months ahead to rectify errors and diminished trust.

Presently, this government walks a tightrope of public opinion. There’s no safety net.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist

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