Mixed Messages on Coronavirus Return

Sunday evening, many communicators breathed easier. The federal government aligned its message on coronavirus (see update, March 29). For weeks, White House science officials said the virus was highly dangerous. The president and some of his economic and political advisors, though, wavered. Some days it was a serious issue, other days it would be over as soon as Easter. One of the results of this two-script messaging was public confusion.

During his March 29 Rose Garden briefing, President Trump, though, abandoned his idea of re-opening the country on Easter. Instead, the president's tone and message about coronavirus was more serious than during his previous press briefings. It seemed his medical advisors had prevailed upon him. Similarly, he announced a regime of distancing and other measures would extend to April 30. The regime was scheduled to end March 30.

The next evening (March 30), though, the president’s briefing was less on point. At the start he said, "Challenging times are ahead for the next 30 days, and this is a very vital 30 days," according to a White House transcript. Other than that, however, nearly everything seemed copacetic. Everyone is doing a "great" or "fantastic" job, the president said repeatedly. Clearly, this was to be an upbeat press briefing. Full period. Stop.

A Moment for Pathos

It fell to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma to provide a touch of pathos on a record day of American deaths from coronavirus. "I want to convey my deepest sympathies to those that have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. We’re all thinking of you," she said during the briefing.

In addition, Verma saluted doctors and other health care workers. "I want to send a message of gratitude to the foot soldiers in this war: men and women that are providing care and comfort to Americans that have been affected by the virus.  Your country is grateful."

At issue, of course, is that the Sun isn't shining all over the country. In record numbers, the public is watching news reports. They are replete with stories about a lack of availability of tests, shortages in PPE and ventilators. Media reports from NY and LA seem particularly dire.

Accentuate the Positive

Instead of acknowledging issues, the president did his best to make the case that everything is under control. His administration is doing a great job, he said more than once.

On the face of it, there’s not too much wrong with that. Projecting a calm exterior is a maxim of crisis PR. Another basic of crisis communication is emphasizing the positive. Some PR pros argue you should never repeat negative news. Say it once and move on.

So it was good when the president emphasized advances in testing. "First of all, the numbers have been incredible on testing, but in the days ahead, we’re going to go even faster," he said.

These new tests eventually might provide a diagnosis of coronavirus in five minutes. Abbott Labs developed the test. The FDA approved it at lightning speed, Trump said, At one point, he showed a box containing the test kit. He congratulated the FDA, Abbott and other pharmaceutical companies.

Later, heads of various companies were called to the podium for an acknowledgement of their company's contribution to the fight. All praised the president's leadership. One corporate head, Mike Lindell of My Pillow, essentially performed an off-script commercial for the president's re-election.

Turning to the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, the president said, "It’s been really pretty amazing what they’ve done...a 2,900-bed hospital in New York in just about three days, maybe four days.  And the whole city is talking about it."

Reality is Important Too

Where the president fell down was in his reluctance to balance upbeat news with continued difficulties surrounding coronavirus. According to media reports, the availability of testing remains an issue. If reports are to be believed, there are shortages of PPE and ventilators too.

The president’s positivity needed at least a smidgen of realism. Without it, he seems out of touch or uncaring. Instead of papering over the issues, the president should be acknowledging issues and discussing how his team will solve them.

And the Media

Another negative is the president's handling of some reporters' questions. He blanched when one questioned him about the apparent dearth of tests. “We’re testing more than any country in the world,” was the president’s response. While that is true, to imply there is no test shortage seems disingenuous. He later berated the reporter for inquiring about the reported shortage of tests.

Today, a Republican, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, was asked about the president's upbeat assessment of testing. “That’s just not true,” he said.

More confusion over messaging. After weeks of saying it was unwise for the general public not to wear masks, the CDC reportedly is ready to change that message.

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.