The costly price of silence

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.

26 Responses to The costly price of silence

  1. Cherylann Bourne-Hayes
    Cherylann Bourne-Hayes December 10, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    Great piece.

  2. Michael Goodman
    Michael Goodman December 10, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Hits every nail on the head! And presented in language and with clarity that any layman could understand.

    Whether our esteemed ministers, Prime or otherwise see it that clearly is another matter altogether.

  3. Santini More
    Santini More December 10, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Well worth the read. Good piece.

  4. Andrew Simpson
    Andrew Simpson December 10, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Why is it that Reudon Eversley, and others who clearly have much to offer, are NOT employed in public service?

    • Michael Goodman
      Michael Goodman December 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      Because in the Public Service, the truth is extremely inconvenient.

  5. june December 10, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Take a bow Mr Eversley.

  6. Ryan Bayne
    Ryan Bayne December 10, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    This goes to show that the tourists who commented on this ain’t ignorant. They know everything about We before we even know we selves.

  7. Peter December 10, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    If the beach was safe, there is no reason the appropriate Ministry could not have published fecal coliform counts for the water off the beach. That is a normal thing for beaches around the world, and provides reassurance for the users.
    If the water wasn’t safe, a competent Ministry would still publish the numbers, and inform the public what they are doing to fix the problem. That is, if they were actually doing something.

  8. John Q December 10, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    My thoughts exactly. BAJANS, stop being apathetic and vote these clowns out

  9. Dave D Small
    Dave D Small December 10, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Nice piece of truth and presented that everyone can understand

  10. C BRIAN BARNES December 10, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Ruedon Eversley seems to be THE ONLY PERSON with courage to describe situations as they are and not seen through the rose colored spectacles worn by the DLP Government,

    Thank you, Reudon Eversley. Don’t you dare let up for one minute. Your contributions will bear fruit and I am sure will encourage others to creep out of their shell and speak up!

  11. Olutoye Walrond
    Olutoye Walrond December 10, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    No one could have said this better. The unfortunate thing is that we the people are the ones who suffer the most from this.

  12. chrstine taylor December 10, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Thank you for a Great Article ! The whole World is watching Barbados crumble and falter with disbelief!

  13. Mike December 10, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Most people including politicians like to hear what makes them feel good and not the truth which more often than not can be corrected at the earliest opportunity so that the eggs will not be stuck all over their faces !!!

  14. The Negrocrat December 10, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Can we afford to allow this bunch of idiots to run until elections are due.

  15. Carlton Proute
    Carlton Proute December 10, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    The inconvenient truths , identified by the writer, labels him…..but he is brave ….he knows only too well the price he has paid, and which he stands to pay ….many are not prepared and so stay silent .

  16. Catherine December 10, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Very true and well said. In answer to Andrew Simpson, because they would be too efficient!

  17. J. Payne December 10, 2016 at 11:29 pm

    To Mr. Eversley. This was a great contribution and assesment as it has presented itself. A good synopsis of multiple views in this situation and the communication disconnects as they arise from the positions taken by all sides.

  18. Troy December 11, 2016 at 8:33 am

    Totally agree with your thoughts Mr. Eversley. I am totally convinced that we have a bunch of jokers running this country. They behave as if they are not accountable to anyone. Minister Sealy should have taken a bath in the Ģ H swamp instead of Worthing beach.

  19. Terrance December 11, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Well written and as refreshing as pure unfiltered truth can be since most accounts of this regime’s incompetence are shrouded in partisan bias and filled to the brim with sewage!

    Sorry… did I say sewage? I meant samp water… and we the public expected to swim in it like Richard or drink 4 glasses like Dennis.

    No thanks. I’ll pass.

  20. Charles. December 11, 2016 at 10:29 am

    i wish to congratulate Mr. Eversley on a great article. It is a shame that people who think like you seem not to be in the positions that have the power to rectify situations.
    We all see the problems, We all speak out, No one in Government seems to listen, and we do NOTHING. I think Barbadians and ministers have forgotten that Government is elected to manage the interest of the people and the Country. In private sector if you do not perform your services are no longer required. I am personally tired with all the talk and NO ACTION! We have so many areas which need address. Outdated Legislation, Obstacles to conducting business, Promoting an economic environment conducive to foreign confidence and investment , Maintenance of Government plant, roads, and the water distribution systems, Projects which promote greater national efficiencies and reduce our dependence on product and fuel importation ( Sustainable energy, recycling, reviving the agricultural sector) and I am sure there are other areas we can focus on as well, Ways to improve the utilization of the resources we have. So WHAT IS THE PROBLEM IN ESTABLISHING A FRAMEWORK WHERE ALL THE ISSUES CAN BE RECORDED AND SYSTEMATICALLY ADDRESSED???

  21. David James December 11, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Pump has been a problem for the last 5 years.Not working properly.

  22. Chattel December 11, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Excellent article. It articulates the dumb leadership of the ineffective incumbents.

  23. Carson C Cadogan December 11, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    You are a fine example of why you should not always help a man when he is down and out.

    The Barbados Labour Party tried its best to bury you and your family.

    The Democratic Labour Party rescued you and now you are biting the hand that fed you.

    I dont need to say anything about you.

  24. Loretta Griffith December 11, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    My problem with this government, is more and more they are appearing to be real inept. This country need revolutionizing. Who will have the political to do it? Only God know.

  25. A Massiah December 14, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Carson Cadogan. The truth must indeed be hurting if you are resorting to personal attacks. I am trusting that Mr Eversely will be just as impartial regardless of which party is in power.


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