During his press conference on Sunday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a “stay at home, work from home” order for Honolulu and took questions from the media.

About 34 minutes in, a reporter asked if churches have to close.

Caldwell began to answer: “No, I think one of the exceptions,” and trailed off before asking for assistance. “They’re not? So what is the answer? Are they? Do you want to answer that? So places of worship need to comply.”

The interaction took less than a minute, but it was the most consequential minute in the press conference. If the highest-ranking official in the city doesn’t have the answers, who does?

Mayor Kirk Caldwell during questions and answer session during press conference. Coronavirus

Mayor Kirk Caldwell answers questions during a recent press conference. At right is Honolulu Emergency Management Director Hirokazu “Hiro” Toiya.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a crisis, people turn to their leaders for guidance. They’re not always looking for answers. Sometimes, they just want reassurance that someone is in control.

Most people don’t have time to watch press conferences. In order to lead during the coronavirus crisis, leaders need to speak directly to the people, on the news and through social media. In this regard, Caldwell has been improving with time.

Caldwell’s Improving Crisis Communication

On Sunday, the mayor announced his “stay at home, work from home” order in a 40-minute press conference. For most of the conference, the audio was too quiet to hear him clearly. A PowerPoint presentation was barely visible on a television screen behind him.

On Monday, Caldwell appeared with Hiro Toiya, director of emergency management, to answer questions from the public. For a half-hour, the two men sat behind a folding table covered (barely) by the tablecloth from your aunty’s potluck. The audio quality was better, thanks to the introduction of a microphone and mixer.

On Tuesday, Mayor Caldwell took a major leap forward. He released a 2-minute video on Facebook. The high-definition video is shot in his office, cropped close. Caldwell looks into the camera and justifies his “stay at home, work from home” policy. His voice trembles with emotion as he explains the risks that people are taking when they engage in unnecessary activities.

At the end of the video, Caldwell makes a personal appeal to surfers and beachgoers. “I get it. I love to surf, I love to swim, I love to go to the beach,” he says, “but let’s be careful, let’s be safe, and let’s not do things unless they’re absolutely necessary.”

Caldwell is improving each day: simplifying his communication, answering questions, and speaking directly to the public. Meanwhile, at Washington Place …

Ige Fails To Seize The Moment

Gov. David Ige is the highest-ranking politician in Hawaii. In a crisis, his voice matters. During the missile alert, he was slow to respond. This time, he has a chance to redeem himself.

In the last week, Ige made two consequential announcements.

On Saturday, he announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors and returning residents. During the hour-long press conference, Ige was joined by Kenneth Hara, director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency; Peter Ingram, the CEO of Hawaiian Airlines; Elliot Mills, vice president of hotel operations for Aulani, the Disney resort; Eric Gill, financial secretary and treasurer of Unite Local 5; and Mufi Hannemann, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

Governor David Ige announces 14 day quarantine for all incoming visitors to hawaii at press conference addressing Coronavirus concerns.

Gov. David Ige announces a 14-day quarantine for all residents and visitors arriving in Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For the first minute of the livestream, people milled around. The audio quality was poor, and the press conference was shot against one of the pillars of the State Capitol. A stray microphone cable swayed over the state seal printed on the podium.

The six men took turns speaking. Cindy McMillan, the governor’s communications director, hovered on the edge of the shot, darting in to direct the proceedings.

It was never made clear why Ige was joined by the supporting speakers because he didn’t acknowledge them during his opening remarks. McMillan introduced them one by one. At the end of the hour, the viewer might have wondered: Who is in charge?

On Monday, Ige announced the statewide “stay at home, work from home” mandate. This 45-minute press conference was held in the governor’s office. Ige spoke with the state seal behind him, a better background than at his previous press conference. He was joined by schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Hara. At one point, during the Q&A period, Rona Suzuki, director of the Department of Taxation, jumped in to answer a question.

During Wednesday’s hour-long press conference, Ige was joined by a few others behind the podium, including University of Hawaii President David Lassner. Reporters couldn’t be physically present, due to social distancing, so they asked questions on a conference call. The question and answer period was interrupted by frequent feedback echoing from the phone speaker. Jodi Leong, Ige’s deputy communications director, repeatedly instructed reporters to mute their phones, with little success. It was a throwback technological issue, given the current popularity of online meeting platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts Meet.

Governor David Ige announces a 14 day quarantine for all visitors to Hawaii due to Coronavirus outbreak.

Ige has been holding frequent press conferences to announce emergency orders and discuss the state’s response to the coronavirus. In the background is Ige’s communications director, Cindy McMillan.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige’s approach to crisis communication contrasts sharply with Caldwell’s. While Caldwell has been making himself more available to the public, Ige has closed himself off behind podiums and in his office. He prefers to let other people speak for him. When he speaks, it’s to the press but not to the people.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Josh Green has been talking to the public. On Tuesday, Green was active, recording three segments for Hawaii News Now. Green also delivered a short message on Twitter for people concerned about his absence from press conferences.

Earlier this week, Green appeared to have been sidelined by Ige, though Ige claimed on Twitter that he hadn’t banned Green from press conferences. Instead, Ige was “reinventing the way state government conducts business while implementing appropriate social distancing in meetings, news conferences and other activities.”

The two smoothed over their differences and appeared together Thursday afternoon during a state press conference and Thursday night during Hawaii News Now’s coronavirus townhall panel discussion.

Ige’s message on Thursday afternoon was his most emphatic so far, an improvement over his performances at previous press conferences. And his appearance on Hawaii News Now was a good sign that he’s ready to step away from the press conference and talk to the public directly.

Moving forward, Ige should lean on Green more, as Green has been the most effective communicator in Ige’s response team. This isn’t to discount Sarah Park and Bruce Anderson, both with the state health department. Though they are hard workers, neither is a natural public speaker. That’s fine; public speaking isn’t in their job descriptions.

However, public speaking is required of Ige, and it’s time for him to step up and lead.

This crisis demands a unified and consistent voice; it demands a speaker who can help the public understand the severity of the situation and inspire its trust in the government’s ability to respond. To be this voice, the governor must take charge during press conferences. He must speak directly to the public, on the news and through social media.

Politicians are not only responsible for making decisions. They must also explain those decisions to the public. Communication is half the job. In a crisis, it’s not acceptable for the leader of a state to defer this responsibility to others.

Silence is failure; it breeds a lack of confidence in the government response. Ige must speak; Ige must lead.

Before you go . . .

During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.