If the building’s on fire: pick up the phone


When it comes to communication, choice of channel is one of the factors that determine whether your communication is a success or a failure.

I don’t want to jump on any bandwagon and criticise South Australia’s official COVID-19 response, but a story that emerged in the media yesterday is the perfect example of choosing the wrong channel.

SA’s COVID-19 response has been widely lauded, with a string of days where we’ve had no cases and no COVID patients in hospital. In addition, the chief public health officer has been widely praised for her regular public briefings and clear communication style. Thus, the critique I’m about to share below is a blip in a overwhelmingly wonderful COVID response plan.

The story [from ABC News] is:

South Australia’s public health chief has apologised for mistakenly claiming Victorian health counterparts left SA Health in the dark about the state’s latest coronavirus case … The UK resident had recently travelled to Melbourne, before flying to South Australia where she was tested and returned a positive result … She is the only confirmed active case of coronavirus in South Australia — the first in almost three weeks.

“Due to an administrative oversight, we can confirm the relevant flight details involving an overseas traveller arriving in South Australia were provided to SA Health prior to their arrival,” Dr Spurrier said.

“We really need to review our processes.”

She added that it was “easy to overlook an email” and that communication failures were not only a problem for South Australia and Victoria, but were a “national issue”. [from ABC News]

In another news piece, it was announced that there would be a change to the communication processes:

“SA Health officials apologised to Victoria and will now pick up the phone to check arrangements for travel exemptions, after a missed email allowed a British woman to fly into Adelaide unannounced”. [From AdelaideNow].

In business, and in our personal lives, we make choices on whether we need to send an email, pick up the phone, text or even call a meeting.

  • Need to share notes from a meeting? Email.
  • Need to check on someone who’s late to arrive to a meeting? Text.
  • Need to tell someone not to turn up at the meeting because the building is burning down? Phone call.

IT Crowd: Fire

In public relations, practitioners assess situational factors including urgency and potential or obvious threats. This helps to make communication channel choices.

COVID-19 presents a threat to public health, so it was unsettling to learn that Australian states were advising each other of international visitors via email only. We all know that emails fall through the cracks. They’re unopened, overlooked, misfiled.

I’ve no doubt the public officials involved in this incident feel terrible for the mistake, and I’m glad to hear that they will now: “pick up the phone”.

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