One evening in March 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, held a gathering of friends in his home. Somehow, the topic of conversation turned to one’s preferred way to die. Caesar stated his hope that death would be sudden.
The next morning, Julius’ wife tried to persuade him to stay home as, after the macabre discussion of the night before, she had dreamed she saw him covered in blood. Caesar’s close friend Brutus arrived for the walk to the Senate chamber and persuaded Julius instead of the importance in the day’s agenda. On March 15, the Ides of March, the two walked in conversation to the morning meeting, one from which Caesar would not survive ambush and assassination by a group of national leaders, including Brutus.
Beware the Ides of March.
On the evening of March 15, 2020 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his cabinet. Following the meeting, he did not emerge through the door into the darkness where media representatives were waiting – although, by all accounts he fared better in the meeting than had Caesar. Instead of the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister, six cabinet ministers – three men and three women, representative of Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet – would meet the press.
COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, was the known agenda of the rare Sunday cabinet meeting and the topic on everyone’s minds.
Having just met with the Prime Minister, whose wife tested positive and who himself had not been tested, the six emerged in a cluster. No social distancing modeled here. One is optimistic they were as good a distance from Mr. Trudeau in the meeting as he had maintained with media earlier in the day. No one actually knows whether he has been infected, only that he is not showing observable symptoms – not uncommon according to reports from pandemic specialists.
Questioned by the media, two cabinet ministers, one male and one female, would alternate answers.
The description above of the cabinet presentation is referred to in the communications world as signalling. In the instance of signalling good things, such as cabinet solidarity and gender balance, it’s virtue signalling from which a virtuous message is awaited, or else it is imagery without substance.
Anticipated virtuous substance from the virtue signalling is tied to an ancient concept adopted by the early Church leaders, formalized in the Roman Catholic Church as seven virtues that stand in contrast to seven sins. The four cardinal virtues were recognized long before the Church, at least as early as Plato in classical antiquity. They are: prudence (common sense), fortitude (courage), temperance (self-control), and justice (fairness). These are complemented by three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love, lovingkindness). These stand opposed to the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, greed (food, money, status, power), anger, sloth (indifference, laziness), gluttony (over-indulgence of anything), and lust.
Would virtuous messaging suitably accompany the visual signal presented? The cluster of cabinet members imaged that all was well. They were close together, even cheerful. They were gender balanced. They spoke one message with two voices, boy-girl-boy-girl style.
Asked about the lack of screening for international travelers arriving by air, the Justice Minister noted they had assurance from the Minister of Public Safety appropriate screening was taking place, then he shifted to stating he would not argue with the facts on the ground but Canadians should be assured the process was beginning.
The Minister of Public Safety attended the meeting, but was not presented to media. Neither presented were the Minister of Health or the Minister of Transportation. Left unaddressed by the cabinet cluster was the action taken by the Premiers of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Alberta and the Mayor of Montreal to have their own representatives at international arrivals gates (after customs and luggage pickup) to inform travellers of the need to self-isolate for fourteen days.
At this point the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages interrupted to note Canadians main priority was to be assured by government that we are safe, the main priority of the government as well. Accordingly, she said, tomorrow we will hear an important announcement.
Tomorrow? The cabinet met. The ministers sent out to address the public are not directly responsible for the file. An important decision has been made, but Canadians won’t find out until the next day. No time was given. (Although Monday morning it was announced as 1:00 p.m., after the noon news cycle in eastern Canada.) No indication as to who will make the announcement. (Although, it might likely be narrowed down to one or more of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, ministers responsible for the file or the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, none of whom were present at the Sunday evening media scrum.)
In response to the question about delay in announcement, the Minister of Justice noted cabinet had been working on this since December and numbers are excellent, with an acceptable infection and death rate, so the strategy thus far is working. Acceptable to who? He followed up in French to note that this is being revisited on a day-to-day basis and Canadians should be confident the government is taking all necessary measures.
Messaging for this brief scrum had obviously been developed. It did not match the signalling.
They either knew and did not share or were unaware that a Canada Border Services agent at Toronto Pearson Airport tested positive, information reported by the media shortly after the cabinet cluster scrum. The media report noted that the CBSA’s union had repeatedly requested improved measures to protect agents and for screening of travellers. Although other employees were notified, there has been no indication of timeline or location to advise travellers of the potential risk.
The seven infected in one Calgary gathering reinforces that airport screening has been inadequate, as do the anecdotal stories and photographs emerging on social media from customs containment areas in airports across the country. And the community exposure due to lack of airport screening explained why premiers and a mayor sent their own people to international airports.
The Sunday evening scrum messaging did not hold out hope toward Canadians, but suspense in the wait until tomorrow message. Conveying an “I know something you don’t know” attitude evident in the answers and the facial expressions of cabinet ministers demonstrated neither temperance (self-control) nor justice (fairness) while they encouraged Canadians to trust the government.
The suggestion that cabinet has been working on this for three-and-a-half months, but doesn’t have basic airport screening or protective measures in place suggests some prudence (common sense) is needed. Charity was absent in the expressed lack of concern that each of the “excellent” “numbers” of infected and dead is a Canadian, a person, with family and friends.
Canadians, meanwhile, are asked to demonstrate fortitude (courage), practice social distancing, and have confidence that our federal government can be trusted, at least until that tomorrow announcement is made, or the next one.
Those who have heard me speak on crisis communications, and those who have availed themselves of my advice in a crisis, will recognize this Sunday evening cluster scrum as a video to be viewed in the context of how to communicate poorly.
Beware the Ides of March.
You will also note the Monday timing is an example of not addressing Canada’s several time zones in a manner that demonstrates justice (fairness) to Canadians and to media. All noon hour news requirements would be met with an 11:00 a.m. press conference (catching Newfoundland at 12:30 and B.C. at 8:00 during the early morning broadcast). Four in the afternoon would capture every six o’clock news broadcast in the country. Of course, in the age of social media, most will know within seconds what is being said.
It would have been virtuous for one person to have shared the simple message, “Cabinet has had a significant meeting and the Prime Minister will address the nation tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. eastern time.” And potentially add whether there would be opportunity for questions following the address.
If you are not already praying for our Prime Minister, his cabinet, and the federal government’s response to this crisis, I suggest you exercise the virtue of faith and start. While you’re on your knees, say one for the people of Canada as well.