Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
Two competing narratives coming out of Tampa, Florida have captivated the nation. Even as some states are wondering what to do with legions of spring breakers returning home from Florida after ignoring social distancing orders, another story is coming out of the Sunshine State that provides a compelling example of competing narratives in the public square.
Hillsborough County, Florida, home to the city of Tampa and other smaller municipalities, as well as a large unincorporated area, recently enacted a safer-at-home policy that forbids public gatherings of greater than 10. One local pastor, megachurch mogul Rodney Howard-Browne, chose to publicly defy this order, much like a few pastors in other states. The local police approached him, explaining the order and asking him not to hold services. They suggested he use the streaming video options he’s used for years to televise his programming around the world. Browne declined.
The following Sunday, he invited more than 1,000 parishioners into his church building, where they agreed that COVID was nothing they needed to fear. Later, in a now-viral social media post, Browne promised to “curse” the virus away from Florida, claiming he did the same to previous pandemics.
Meanwhile, the local authorities followed through on their promise, arresting Browne for defying a lawful order and endangering not just his parishioners but also the public. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told the media, “Shame on this pastor, their legal staff, and their leaders for forcing us to (do this). We are hopeful this will be a wakeup call…”
Predictably, it was not. The pastor bonded out and immediately unleashed his counter-narrative. He took to social media to assert that the response to coronavirus was “blown totally way out of proportion” and that he was the victim of “religious bigotry and hate,” adding, “We’re going to have to go to court because the church is encroached on every side…”
Now, the two sides are dug in, one trying to enforce an order meant to protect the public, and the other claiming persecution by government overreach. Those messages are translating out into the public square, where people with limited information about the issue and the context are arguing the merits of their position, whether considered or not.
There are a few lessons here. Often, PR narratives operate similar to that child’s game of telephone. A message is sent out and it gets repeated over and over, losing a bit of integrity or accuracy each time. Sometimes it gets down to core basics that are more or less accurate. Other times, it’s completely mangled.
To push back against that natural digression after the fact is less effective than keeping the message very simple and very clear in the beginning. At the core of every Public Relations message there should be a nugget – maybe a phrase or a sentence – that could stand as the lynchpin of the entire message. Make sure that is what people here first and foremost, because that’s what they will pass along.