Wanderings – Failures in communication for Chicken Little

The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is not that difficult. Many people can do this well. Being able to communicate well does not mean being the most eloquent of speakers, rather that what you are trying to communicate is understood by those with whom you are trying to communicate with or to.

Communication becomes difficult when you over think things, try to speak bureaucratic-ise, or approach the topic that you are communicating with from a sense of authority or entitlement.

In the digital age, it is increasingly easier to stick your foot or a digital implement in your mouth. Writing by email, text or some form of direct messaging app often does not convey the tone of what you are trying to say. People resort to emojis, graphics, or even animated gif files to put that inflection on what they write. It works in the informal world, but cannot be done in the professional world. As more and more people are resorting to text-based communication, the art of communicating in-person is also becoming lost.

A good example of communication being lost is the local messaging on the upcoming April 8 total solar eclipse.

It started with school boards voting to change their PA days “out of an abundance of caution” so that kids on school buses don’t mistakenly look at the eclipse before and after the totality phase. We went through more than two years of the “out of an abundance of caution” messaging with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please use a thesaurus.

The move to change the PA days even raised the ire of the provincial minister of education, who thought it would be good science learning for students. He is not wrong, however the split bus times used by the local school boards does not work though for this “once-in-a-lifetime” event. Extending the school day for science reasons was also not considered.

Then came the messaging from the local county. The first takeaway from a public meeting was to tell local residents to stay home during the eclipse. The reason given was that there may be a lot of visitors coming to the region. So what? Further comments at the meeting was about how emergency services would be on standby, that all the officials are making plans.

One interesting part of the meeting was when elected officials were saying what the local tourism agency was planning before said agency’s communications people knew what was happening. A situation of where the left hand does not know what the right hand was doing.

Since the initial “discovery” that the path of totality for this solar eclipse was going through the area where I live, the communication has not improved.

The tourism agency which owns a vast amount of land in the region is going to throw open its park as a prime viewing area, for free – except for parking. There will be a charge for that, but otherwise it is free. No. It is not free, it’s $10 per vehicle. No one lives nearby. It is not reasonable walk to this place – be clear with the communication.

Many of the municipalities have focused on emergency management, worried that an extra 8-10,000 people on the roads in an area that is over 3,000 square kilometres is going to clog up response times. That is a valid concern but still poorly communicated.

Ideally instead of the first message about this celestial event being “stay home” it should have been that “expect lots of tourists”.

If you live in a tourist area, like I do, it is pretty easy to decide if you are going to go and do things based on when you know tourists are going to be around. Do not feel like fighting the crowds? Stay home. Locals know to buy their groceries locally on Thursdays in the summer because campers arrive on Fridays. Most people who live in tourist areas do this type avoidance routine if they want to. Communications people should have known this.

Talking to some residents, a few have taken offence to the suggestion that their ability to enjoy the area they chose to live in should take a back seat for the needs of tourists for a four hour period. Stay home. Do not go out. Do not dare drive on the roads. Leave those for the tourists – and maybe emergency services if they are needed. But do not go out. Chicken Little anyone?

How the area’s plans for the solar eclipse have been poorly communicated is a great example of the communication failures that are present in, and accomplished by, government. If this can be done poorly, putting the cart before the horse while also forgetting their audience – for a tourist event; it begs the question of what else is being done poorly?

From major property tax increases being called “comfortable”, to playing Chicken Little over an eclipse, the message is clear that communication – especially by those in government – needs a lot of improvement.

The column was originally published in the March 27, 2024 print edition of the Morrisburg Leader.