A sign of effective leadership is the ability to adapt, take criticism and learn from past mistakes. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received his share of criticism for his handling of the bushfire crisis, not all media say he’s been doing a bad job, and some suggest that he has learned from his early missteps.
The question then arises – is there room for improvement in the media’s leadership throughout the crisis? Have some journalists and outlets been sensationalising stories or too quickly looking for fault?
Regional Victoria is an area I know well. I grew up in Mildura, and my grandparents and cousins lived in north-eastern Victoria. I worked extensively as a rural journalist for Win TV, including the areas ravaged by bushfires this season.
So, it seemed natural to ask the local journalists their thoughts on Mr Morrison. East Gippsland Newspapers Editor Jake Le Maitre says Mr Morrison has visited the region throughout the crisis.
“He came in unannounced one day and went to a volunteer donation centre and the relief centre to show support and fly under the radar,” Jake says.
“Our community is trying to rebuild, so Mr Morrison worked with people to see the focus is on the right areas.”
Jake says it’s important to remember that the role of local media in a crisis like the bushfires is often quite different to that of the larger national press.
“We are the community informant, and it’s our job more to let people know what is coming up and the help available,” he says.
“But from everything we have seen, the focus has been quite positive.”
Overall, Jake says he’s seen some good leadership throughout the crisis, from local community members to politicians including Veteran’s Affairs Minister and Member for Gippsland Darren Chester. He was the Gippsland bureau chief of WIN TV when I worked at the station.
“Darren has been really good throughout the whole crisis, while Premier Daniel Andrews has made several visits and phoned to say thank you for informing the community and our coverage,” he says.
One of my favourite journalists of all time doesn’t work for a large, metropolitan outlet. My father’s best childhood mate Gary (Gus) Underwood was the editor of the Kyabram Free Press, in rural Victoria. He inspired me to be a journalist with his witty, opinionated columns and for building up a paper, treasured among locals. At the age of 76, he still writes for the local newspaper after being lured out of retirement and says he was slightly shocked to see the wrath Mr Morrison was receiving.
“He’s made some mistakes, and there were people who shunned him on visits to bushfire areas, but remember, depending on which way you vote, political leaders are often shunned,” Gus says.
“We’ve never seen fires like these, and you have to heed the warnings of science with these major fires a real crisis, but the constant blame games in the midst of it all isn’t helping either.”
Leadership Presentation Coach and University of Queensland Public Relations Industry Lecturer Tony Biancotti agrees with Gus that it is normal for some people to shun leaders with different political allegiances.
Tony says local media will usually cover a political visit to a trouble spot in more detail with less sensationalism.
However, he says leaders should always have an advanced person let people know they are coming, like in the Cobargo encounters, to give people the chance to be out of shot if they did not want to be involved.
“These days, it’s also easy for a ‘support team’ to capture context video – their own ‘angle’ of negative encounters plus the vision of more friendly encounters,” Tony says.
“A ‘balanced context’ can then be put on the leader’s social media, such as Facebook or LinkedIn Pages.
“Acknowledge the negative encounters people have seen on mainstream media, but you can show a different angle (literally) and show that there were positive encounters also.”
Tony says you could even offer mainstream media’ context video’ for follow-up stories where the media shows both the hostile and more friendly encounters. He says sadly, the media do tend to look for fault or a sensational story angle.
“Some media will give balanced reporting including praise, usually longer post-event analysis with expert commentary,” he says
“But generally, for the early stories on the day, the emphasis will be on fault and dramatic encounters – better vision and audio that is more likely to interest and attract an audience.”
LEAD WITH PURPOSE.