I grieve for Barbados. I genuinely do. Not so much because we have a government which seems hopelessly unable to get anything right, but more so because of the hefty price which a country often pays for governmental incompetence through the loss of invaluable opportunities.
See that crisis on the south coast which reached full-blown status last weekend and went global? It all could have been avoided had this government recognized the strategic role of communication in crisis management, decisively intervened when the matter was just a risk issue, and provided the necessary assurances that it was doing everything possible to rectify the problem.
That, however, seemed a bit too much for this seemingly dinosaur-age Democratic Labour Party (DLP) regime which stubbornly refuses to recognize that communication, more than anything else, holds the key to success in the 21st century environment. What Barbados was treated to, instead, was another experience of the trademark deafening silence which has become the regime’s most distinguishing hallmark.
Failure to communicate, especially in the context of a crisis, can be interpreted as a sign of indifference, not knowing what to do or, worse yet, simply not caring. And being seen as caring, especially by stakeholders directly impacted, is key to retaining their trust and cooperation which are necessary to beat the crisis.
It was therefore not surprising that in the absence of effective government communication, the reports persisted that the south coast sewage system was malfunctioning and that raw effluent was seen in a number of instances flowing on to the street. The only official word was an eventual denial from the general manager of the Barbados Water Authority which has responsibility for managing the sewage system.
It is hard to believe that all of this was unfolding right in the tourist belt. With the closure of the popular Worthing Beach last Friday amid concern about possible contamination by smelly run-off water from the nearby Graeme Hall Swamp, frustrated tourists apparently had had enough. They took to cyberspace, especially TripAdvisor, and told the world what was going on.
“That is gross. How could the gov’t let it get to this point?” remarked a Canadian visitor going by the screen name “Northern Canuck1”. Randr100040, a fellow Canadian, replied: “Northerncanuck …they probably spent all their money on the 50th celebrations.” English visitor, sunworshiper 76, posted: “Have a look on ‘You Tube’ under the headline ‘Barbados Sewage’. It’s not a pretty sight.”
A crisis, from a strategic communications perspective, is any unwelcome development which can have the negative effect of damaging the image and reputation of a product or organization, and undermining key stakeholder relationships through an erosion of trust and confidence in the integrity of the product or organization.
“The fact that we live in an age of transparency means that no company or organization is immune to the threat of a possible crisis,” writes Peter Anthonissen in Crisis Communication: Practical PR Strategies for Reputation Management and Company Survival. “How an organization communicates when hit by a crisis can often make or break it.” Anthonissen also emphasizes: “The way in which a company reacts to a crisis often has more influence on public perception than the crisis itself.”
The regime’s response causes one to wonder if it really understands the fragile nature of the tourism business, our key foreign exchange earner, and its sensitivity to negative publicity. When we are promoting Barbados in the global marketplace as a pristine holiday destination, we are essentially selling an image to prospective visitors. The purchase is made on this basis and the consumer only gets to actually experience the product when he or she arrives on island. Trust, obviously, is a major factor in the decision.
The image of our tourism product is formed, not just on information put out by Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., but also comments on Internet sites like TripAdvisor, mainstream media coverage, and
word-of-mouth recommendations from relatives, friends or colleagues, especially if they have visited. The pristine image of Barbados was undermined by the fiasco on the south coast and the regime’s poor response.
The result is that today, on the threshold of the peak winter season, the island has a crisis on its hands. Public safety, financial loss and reputation loss are three threats usually posed by a crisis. They were quite evident in the south coast scenario and only time will tell the true impact.
If this hard-ears regime believes the matter is simply going to blow away because Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy and Minister of Health John Boyce went swimming off Worthing Beach yesterday following its reopening, it had better think again.
A now skeptical market can easily see through such public relations stunts. What Barbados needs is a crisis communication strategy to limit the damage and rebuild trust in the integrity of our tourism product. A crisis, and this one is no exception, generally stems from a failure, in a timely fashion, to tackle and neutralize a risk issue before it has the opportunity to mushroom into a full blown crisis.
What is interesting, though, is that Government, based on a statement issued this week, appears to be fully blaming the crisis on overflows from the heavy rainfall of Tuesday, November 29, which derailed the grand finale of the controversial 50th Independence anniversary celebrations.
Does this amount to an outright dismissal of the reports of leaking sewage which had surfaced weeks before? If anything, the heavy rain would have only made a bad situation worse. It seems the regime is in a state of denial.
Facts, though important, are secondary to perception. What people perceive is their reality and eventually becomes their truth. So, even though the regime may insist that the smelly brown water flowing into Worthing Beach is not sewage, if Barbadians and tourists believe it is, then this is the issue which has to be frontally addressed to change the perception. There is no getting away from it. Crisis management is not the simple exercise of putting out a press release.
During a tour of the St Bartholomew’s Primary School last month, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart sought to explain to students his much-criticized tendency to remain silent. However, the analogy which he drew, as well as the logic of his argument, really boggle the mind.
He reportedly said: “…if you’re on a plane travelling from Barbados to the United Kingdom or wherever, and every two or three minutes you can hear the pilot’s voice telling you ‘don’t worry, everything is all right’, you know that something is wrong.”
The reality, though, is that passengers do not expect this. What they expect is that if there is, say, a severe case of turbulence, that there will be some reassurance from the cockpit instead of deafening silence which naturally would only cause passengers to fear that the worst is about to happen, especially if they are unfamiliar with the science of flying.
A similar comparison can be made with how this government has handled many issues, especially the economic crisis and the latest example of the south coast sewage issue. Its silence may have actually contributed to making the situation worse.
Contrary to what the beleaguered regime believes, it is not its critics who are its worst enemy. It has been its own self. The regime keeps shooting itself in the foot but refuses to accept this reality because self-righteousness renders it too blind to see.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist.