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COVID-19 Leadership Requires Clarity and Authenticity

On Apr. 29 I first published “COVID-19 Leadership” comparing challenges faced in Washington with those in California and New York. I updated that piece for the May 17 Tri-City Herald, focusing more on Gov. Inslee’s performance during press conferences – also posted below. If you live in the Tri-Cities area and wish to keep elected officials on their toes, please subscribe to our local newspaper. For all others, please support print journalism in your area. Thanks!

In mid-April a community pastor echoed a thought that’s on all of our minds: “The economy matters.” A day earlier Washington’s unemployment benefits website had crashed under “a tsunami of claims” – about 600,000 – and we now know the ripple effect from an upended economy has suicides on the rise.

If we’re too slow in re-opening our state, we’ll not only risk shattering our economy, but mental health and other physical casualties could challenge COVID-19 numbers. If we fully re-open today, we risk swelling the loss of lives.

So far the coronavirus has killed about 1,000 Washingtonians, and more than 70 in the Tri-Cities. About 60 have been in Benton County, which maintains the highest per capita fatality rate in our state – more than twice the average. Perhaps that’s due to our sizeable retiree population. While economic collapse affects all age groups equally, the virus does not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20% of U.S. fatalities are under age 65. The rest are seniors.

“What percentage of them,” Rev. Patrick Mullen asked that Sunday, “are available to be expended for the sake of our economy?”

The response came that afternoon from a man representing more than 100 protesters along George Washington Way in Richland, Wash. We need to get America’s economy back on track, he said. “Let the virus run its natural course.”

These perspectives exemplify the policy challenge Gov. Jay Inslee needs to address in simple and compelling terms before asking us to look at dials and graphs.

He started off well. An early April poll gave his pandemic response a 74% public approval rating. That’s quite a political achievement under any circumstance, especially since Washington was the first U.S. epicenter and there were no federal pandemic plans to help him out. That wave of support is threatened as he tackles the more complex piece of the pandemic equation – opening up our state – while wrestling with his own less-than stellar communication game.

Earlier the governor’s team allowed media spotlights to focus too long on topics like ‘unreasonable’ fishing restrictions, ‘over reaction to a flu-like virus’ and ‘unconstitutional’ state authority, among other issues. Some of these are still in play. Going into May he continued to “think” his plans would work and “hope” for success when what we needed instead was his confidence. He continued to take deep dives into details of data collection and back-end charts that wasted opportunities for him to inspire, and for his advisors to talk and build their own credibility.

His cardinal sin, however, is being tone-deaf to those who have lost loved-ones or income, those suffering from sadness, anxiety and anger. He doesn’t realize how he’s coming across on camera, and, perplexingly, his team isn’t telling him.

It wasn’t until his May 1 press conference that he offered heartfelt condolences to families of COVID-19 fatalities. Much of the goodwill he could have gained was undermined minutes earlier when he walked on camera smiling and, yes, whistling. After a cheerful “Ready?” and “Good afternoon,” his next words were, “Today I’m pleased…,” followed by a somewhat nebulous presentation of his future vision. The condolences came later.

Thirty minutes into the conference and without provocation, he insulted his principle audience: “The great members of the press keep wishing for failure here.” Obviously some bad press is under his skin, perhaps the mishandled topics mentioned above. Disparaging all journalists (or any other profession), however, is unstatesman-like, unwise since he depends on reporters to convey his key messages, and projects lack of personal accountability for his own performance.

After about 50 minutes and without providing any future milestone date for easing restrictions – which is what many of us were waiting for – he smiled again, actually chuckled, and walked off screen.

Such lack of situational awareness undermines everything else said of value, including seemingly sincere messages to families. If he continues this way, he will erode his support numbers and further embolden those who wish to frivolously cast aside health protocols.

A week later he entered the press room and, ignoring his script, remarked, “I was out just enjoying a moment’s sun a couple of hours ago … and I saw the flyby of two C-17 cargo planes honoring our healthcare workers … today we’re seeing thousands of heroes wearing scrubs and masks … We are making progress because millions of Washingtonians have committed themselves … by making really hard personal decisions. As a result, we are beginning to open up our economy.” He then returned to a script that spoke to specific re-opening actions that he’s taking now under the first two phases of his plan. That’s what we need at every press event – real inspiration mixed with strong and clear action statements.

I’ve interacted with Gov. Inslee before and believe him to be authentic. His “testing, contact tracing and isolation” and phased re-opening approach feels like the right action to support the value we Americans place on both life and commerce. But before he spends another moment on this or that indicator, he needs to consistently and willfully demonstrate that our priorities are his priorities, that his vision for the future matches our vision for the future, and, above all, that he truly feels our pain.

Mike Paoli owns Tri-Cities Public Relations in Kennewick and was a former reader representative on the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board. He is an Air Force and nuclear industry retiree, crisis communication expert and former air station commander.

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