There are fresh questions for Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown over communication with those affected by flooding and slips after a message emerged in which he griped about having to cancel tennis “to deal with media drongos over the flooding tomorrow”.
Experts in communications and disaster say it points to a relationship with the media that doesn’t reflect the needs of those living in a disaster-struck city.
There has been extensive criticism of Auckland Council’s communications on Friday when a record amount of rain fell, leaving four people dead, wrecking businesses and homes and causing widespread disruption.
During that time there was “radio silence” from the council, according to one expert who says a text message the Herald has obtained in which Brown refers to “media drongos” would have set “alarm bells” ringing if seen before the deluge.
Brown’s term as mayor has seen him reject media interviews and limit the number of press conferences held to communicate information to the public. It emerged last week Brown had accepted only two of 108 interview requests during his first month in office.
The “drongos” message comes from a WhatsApp messenger group Brown joined last month for organising games at the West End Lawn Tennis Club in Westmere. The tennis group - called The Grumpy Old Men - aims to develop groups of four to play doubles games on Fridays and Sundays.
The message thread provided shows the rain stopped Brown’s planned tennis match on Friday, which he had previously cited as the reason he could not do an interview.
Around 4pm on Thursday, a radio producer organising the next day’s show sent a tweet in which he quoted Brown rejecting an interview the next morning, saying: “I am playing tennis then anyway.”
The message thread among the “Grumpies” showed a rain forecast sent to the group by a member warning of bad weather.
Brown responded at 8.24pm: “Bugger. I’ll look out the window first thing.” Then on Friday morning wrote at 6.46am: “And it’s pissing down so no tennis.”
Brown had committed to playing on Sunday then cancelled the night before. “Anyhow I’ve got to deal with media drongos over the flooding tomorrow so sadly no tennis for me tomorrow.” He signed off as “Browny”.
The Herald asked Brown to comment, saying a story was to be written on the message thread. He responded by text message: “Please don’t.”
When explained it related to questions about the council’s communications with the public, he said: “That was a private conversation aimed at giving a reason to miss tennis. It in no way means I am not taking communication with all levels seriously.
“There is no need to exacerbate a situation which is not about me but about getting things right for the public and especially those in need and in danger. Have commissioned a full review including communications and that includes everyone.”
Professor of Disaster Management Dr David Johnston said the message suggested a “mindset”. “If we had that text we would have predicted much of the outcome. Alarm bells would have rung.”
Johnston said the Auckland public had “radio silence” from the council during the worst of the downpour on Friday at a time when people would have been seeking information on how to get help and stay safe.
Instead of good communication, there was “an absence of anything from anyone”, he said. “Telling people what you know - and what you don’t know - is important.”
Johnston rejected the “unprecedented” event as a barrier to good communications. He said the Christchurch earthquakes and pandemic were good examples of a framework of crisis management providing a pathway for those responding to it, including communicating with those affected.
“For effective communications to happen in a crisis, there needs to be a relationship with all parts of the system.”
AUT journalism senior lecturer Dr Greg Treadwell said media were geared to meet community needs with information at times of crisis while also having a role as a watchdog which could be challenging for those leading a response.
“I think anybody who is going to lead us through a disaster needs to be able to relate to the media.”
He pointed to Brown’s reluctance to be interviewed, saying he appeared to see the media as “an irritant and political enemy”. “We know (Brown’s) understanding of the mayoral role in terms of the media is two dimensional.”
Treadwell said the disaster preparedness message - “turn on your radio” - existed because it reflected how people turned to mainstream media in a crisis.
He said he didn’t consider the message to be private and that it was important for people to see what leaders said when they thought they were speaking without anyone listening.
University of Canterbury journalism senior lecturer Dr Tara Ross said extensive research showed the public turned to mainstream media during times of crisis.
She said the media’s role in a crisis was to communicate information to its communities but also to reflect those communities’ experiences back to those leading the response.
“It would appear Wayne Brown has forgotten that’s an important role for the media to advocate on behalf of their communities. It’s an important part of leadership to understand the role of the media.
“Our goal is to make sure we keep our communities safe. That means talking to the media - even if you don’t like them.”