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Image: Archi Banal
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PoliticsFebruary 4, 2023

The communications machine broke down in the floods. How can we fix it?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

A flailing mayor was only the public face of a multifaceted flooding communications failure. Duncan Greive examines the mess, and asks what can be done to improve it.

It’s a chilling timeline. Stuff’s Kelly Dennett catalogued, beat-by-beat, the 12 hours in which Auckland was pummelled by a catastrophic deluge, interspersing apocalyptic flooding events with moments of inexplicable communications failure. The technique is powerfully stark, putting the human impact – the chaos and tragedy across our transport systems and neighbourhoods – directly adjacent to the bizarre vacuum in communications from a large number of local and central government figures and agencies.

It was a terrifying night. An entire season’s worth of rain arrived in less than 24 hours, generating extraordinary scenes across the city. Homes collapsed, streets turned into rivers, buses floated away and bodies were discovered. Yet at the same time some of the most crucial parts of our communications infrastructure were only sporadically in motion, with others simply silent. Dennett’s account stops early on the morning of Saturday January 28 – but the record has hardly improved since. The communications machine belatedly whirred into life, but never has seemed on top of the situation. 

A mayor who had been cranky and absent became ubiquitous by his standards, but scarcely more effective, spending much of his energy remonstrating with the media or blame-shifting. Waka Kotahi gave only sporadic updates on the transport network. Civil Defence, MPI and DOC all have failed to give crucial or timely information about aspects of the flooding which impact their areas of responsibility, while the Ministry of Education has infuriated both educators and parents with its haphazard response. 

A flooded street in Epsom, Auckland, on Wednesday. (Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida)

While there was some truth to Mayor Brown’s comment that “we need the rain to stop, that’s the main issue”, the communication breakdown was not without consequences. Clearer, better-distributed and more timely communication would have allowed people to move their belongings to higher ground. Cars could have been relocated away from flooding. Evacuations might have been earlier and less traumatic, and, most agonisingly, lives could have been saved. Roads could have been kept clearer for emergency services. Businesses might have been able to move plant to avoid it being wrecked by submersion.

The bill for the flooding won’t be known for months, but some part of it, with all the accompanying agony, was avoidable with better communication. A city battered by the rains and bruised by bearing the brunt of years of lockdowns deserved far better, especially given how central communications has been to our national self-image in recent years.

What happened to the comms juggernaut?

It’s a little over three years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which New Zealand was globally admired for the way it had deployed clear and precise communication to overcome what was rated a very poor degree of preparedness for a major global pandemic. We will likely never forget the array of tools and how adroitly they were chosen – the 1pm press conferences, the yellow and white branding, the powerful phraseology: “Stay home. Save lives.” All constructed by a dedicated cross-functional team in a matter of days.

Over the coming months and years, inevitably that precision began to fray. Level 2.5, the traffic light system, and the shaky, shifting rules around masking and checking in. Still, compared to what we saw in other countries, New Zealand earned its reputation as a place which deployed communication tools remarkably well in the face of a crisis.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern shares information on the Covid-19 pandemic on May 27, 2020. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Which is what makes our communication around the flooding so frustrating, and mystifying. Having been tested by terrorism and volcanic eruption even before the pandemic, and having shown that we know what world class crisis communication looks like, why did we botch it so badly this past week? And are there lessons in this failure which might leave us better prepared for future crises?

To be clear, none of this is uncomplicated, and there is a limit to the comparison between the flood and the pandemic as communications challenges. To state the most obvious difference, as fast as Covid-19 spread, the rain came faster. Likewise, the localised nature of the flooding meant that there were some jurisdictional issues – where the Covid-19 response was clearly a central government matter, with planning driven by the prime minister and her office, the floods were more complex. They straddled local and central government and multiple different agencies, with responsibility a little blurry. But fundamentally none of that is big enough to explain why so many different people and organisations froze and failed in the face of such clear need. Yes, it was the Friday of a local long weekend. No, that cannot excuse it.

Why it’s so much more complicated today

In prior eras, communication was in many ways far more simple. With very few instantaneous communication tools, you used what you had. Radio and television had primacy, along with huge audiences – people had little else to do with their attention. Now, the reverse is true – radio and television have smaller audiences than they have had in decades, and the digital audience is spread over millions of individually curated feeds and behaviour patterns. 

This is partly the unavoidable reality that lies behind the regular scandalised stories about the growth in public sector comms staff: we don’t live in a monoculture anymore, so reaching everyone takes a lot more work and planning. If our behaviours are far more complex, so are the media platforms. The radio, TV and newspaper triumvirate was simple and reliable in many respects – effective, but also unchanging. 

Back when TV – and TV newsreaders – had primacy, communicating in a crisis was a simpler affair.

Social platforms are very different. The interface and priorities are in constant motion, and highly specific. Twitter often demands you to log in to see a tweet now, greatly impacting its utility for those who aren’t users. TikTok doesn’t show a timestamp, making it difficult to figure out when an event shown actually happened. Facebook has gone from having huge free distribution for organisations to demanding an increasingly hefty price for a wide audience. Google prioritises advertisements at the top of many of its search pages, which can be manipulated by competitors and might be unclear to users. 

All these decisions are made for defensible reasons – for the platforms. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s precisely how private enterprise is meant to work. But as they evolve, so it becomes clear that our reliance on multinational platforms for our information architecture makes us highly vulnerable at a societal level. And because these changes happen constantly and with little public debate, what worked during your last crisis might be inoperable during the next. Equally, a new platform might have risen, like Tiktok or BeReal, with attendant attention share among particular communities, while media staffing often remains largely focused on other platforms.

Similarly, with search and social apps dominating digital advertising, there is a hollowing out of local news media. This severely stymies its ability to swiftly meet the demands of a world which appears to be generating ever more crises, both the complex and generational, and the sharp and shocking. While the government has announced plans to legislate to force Australia-style deals that will make tech giants pay for the news they use on their platforms, only a few have been signed so far, and at much smaller scale to those in Australia. Certainly not at a scale fit to allow for failsafe staffing to meet abrupt crises like the flooding in Auckland.

Even the tools we did have were hardly deployed

It creates a situation in which conveying crucial, timely and accurate information is far more difficult than it has ever been before. Yet the Covid response shows it can be done, and that should have been a wake-up call for all agencies to check that their systems were ready for the next disaster. To ensure that the system worked whether the person fronting it was Jacinda Ardern or Wayne Brown, to put it bluntly.

We saw on Friday just how far from that we currently are. The potential and real severity of the storm was not well conveyed in advance by either of our publicly-funded weather monitoring agencies. For all the difficulties of reliance on social platforms, even far more basic and reliable systems were not utilised well. Auckland Emergency Management slowly creaked into action with a trio of emails issued well after the city succumbed to inundation, later even than the very belated cancellation of Friday’s Elton John concert. 

But the most powerful tool in the state’s modern communication arsenal are emergency alerts delivered to all cellphones. There is no doubt that these should have been deployed on Friday, and might have saved lives and property had they been. Yet the first emergency alerts to the city’s cellphones came on the evening of Sunday 29, more than 48 hours after the flooding peaked. Despite the passage of time it still read like it had been written in a rush. The mystifying question mark in the middle of one sentence seemed to sum up much of the response from official channels throughout.

Sunday’s Auckland Emergency Management alert featured a stray question mark that seemed to say so much.

As The Spinoff’s Charlotte Muru-Lanning noted in an incendiary edition of her The Boil Up newsletter, “it was marae, iwi, community organisations, charities, schools, the CAB (to which our mayor proposes we cut funding), neighbours, friends and whānau who led the way when it came to responding to people’s needs and communicating vital information.” She noted that along with the well-canvassed and partially avoidable damage to property, there were many other flow-on impacts from the information void. She checked in on her local Domino’s on Friday and found it buckling, with a four-and-a-half hour wait for pizza and furious patrons – exactly the kind of needless strain on people, businesses and transport that might easily have been avoided with better communications.

Even well after the worst of the flooding had subsided, basic errors were still being made. One exasperated principal told me a story about the chaotic week involving school closures. The Ministry of Education had spent 90 minutes liaising with hundreds of school principals about post-summer holidays reopening, adamant that it would go ahead as scheduled. Within minutes of the call ending, Stuff reported that reopening would be delayed by a week. Some time later the ministry found time to communicate this to schools, with an email saying that “schools and kura can open or remain open for onsite instruction but need to provide distance learning” – a logistical impossibility. The school closures themselves would be partially reversed days later. 

It all amounts to a situation in which we have more comms staff in more places than ever, but somehow this week have still been completely adrift. An inquiry has been announced, which should bring some clarity to how this long train of failure was set in motion. This is vital, sure, but maybe it needs to ask bigger questions too: how do we know basic but vital information in an emergency and who is in charge when fast-paced situations demand leadership, decisive action and adroit deployment of all available communication channels. Until we figure that out, future disasters will be needlessly exacerbated, and the towering communications industrial complex will struggle to justify its existence when we need it most.

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