A lot has changed since I wrote the first version of this piece in January – we have moved from business as usual to a lockdown situation prompted by the Covid-19 crisis. The sudden change has disrupted the normality of public life, business operations and social activities.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the public’s appetite for clear communications in times of crisis. Some political leaders across the world have been ‘all hands on deck’ to deliver prompt responses and reassure the public that they are taking appropriate measures to curtail the spread of the virus. Others have been issuing contradictory messages that have instilled fear and a growing moral panic.
National leadership at its best
Let’s begin by looking at those whose crisis responses look most robust. German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a moving address centered around togetherness, solidarity and collective action on 18th March 2020. The Chancellor acknowledged that in a democracy like Germany, the public deserves transparency and clarity on measures that the government has put in place to overcome the crisis, so that members of the public can get back to work, school and other social and family commitments. She was empathetic, grateful for the essential workers’ dedication and reassuring. She concluded by saying she was “entirely sure that we will overcome the crisis.” The emphasis on the “we” throughout her speech most certainly touched the hearts of many German citizens and cut through the noise and fear.
A couple of weeks after Merkel’s speech, the Queen delivered an equally touching and comforting address in which she stressed that the fight against Covid-19 was a collective effort that all members of the public must partake in.
Another leader who is displaying a commendably transparent response is Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister. The clarity of her messaging is outstanding – she makes sure everybody understands the crisis developments by making herself available to answer the public’s questions. Not only has she held regular Facebook live Q&A sessions, she delivered a special briefing for children stressing that “the young need extra help understanding the global coronavirus pandemic.” Many have described her response as a “masterclass in leadership”, because she is a public motivator who understands the necessity of minimising panic in times of crisis. Like Angela Merkel and the Queen, Jacinda also emphasises the need for the public to unite for the greater good in such hard times.
Demonstrating leadership through social media
These examples show that great leadership during hard times has the potential to increase citizens’ trust in government. As Barack Obama rightly put it in a video on Twitter, “if there is one thing that we’ve learned as a country from moments of great crisis, it’s that the spirit of looking out for one another can’t be restricted to our homes … it also has to be reflected in our national government. The kind of leadership that’s guided by knowledge and experience, honesty and humility, empathy and grace.” That’s the kind of leadership that helps a nation stick together for the greater good.
Another government whose response has been revered around the world is South Korea. According to Margaret Key, the APAC CEO of MSL, South Korea’s success is attributable to its track record in handling health crises such as SARS and H1N1 (PR Week). The government has been efficient in rallying stakeholders and partners to tackle the crisis from the very beginning, precisely by organising meetings with biotech companies and researchers to roll out testing. Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centre for Disease Control, has been lauded for her grace and composure as she managed to reassure the public – from the onset of the crisis, she held regular briefings on television to discuss infection rates and deliver self-protection tips. Every Korean citizen with a mobile phone would also receive daily government alerts about new public announcements in their respective location. Other crisis communications efforts South Korea rolled out include creating a crisis communications tower to provide crisis management governance so that core government ministries and related officials could work collaboratively to fight the crisis.
The Singapore Government has also displayed commendable leadership in responding to the coronavirus crisis. Not only did government leaders make sure their citizens felt safe by imposing border controls, they increased laboratory capacity for mass testing and developed their own test kits to contain the infection. Soon after the disease first erupted in China, they also contributed to setting up a dedicated thread on WhatsApp to provide daily updates on the number of infections as well as advice to citizens on measures to stay safe. In a calm and reassuring tone, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also “posted a nine-minute video in three languages urging people to resume their normal lives. Addressing misinformation was another strategy the government put in place to reduce panic – they used “a tough new online falsehoods law to correct misinformation in posts about the coronavirus.” (Financial Times)
From Asia to Africa, where “the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, led by Dr John Nkengasong, has stepped up to the challenge of coordinating epidemiological data and collaboration across the continent” (The Telegraph). Countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa have received praises for their coronavirus response (The Telegraph). Rwandan President Paul Kagame was the first one to impose lockdown in Africa in his country (DW). As part of his response, he delivered a heartfelt address to the nation, reassuring them that “the government will continue to do everything possible to support Rwandans through this challenging time” and announced a social protection plan to support the most vulnerable of the country (The East African).
There have however been less encouraging responses. Trust in government during times of crisis is paramount, especially as almost half of people around the world do not trust government leaders “to successfully address [their countries’] challenges.” (Edelman Trust Barometer 2020)
The UK government has been criticised for underestimating the crisis at the start and lacking the clarity that’s needed to inform the public while maintaining trust. Likewise, Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has received backlash for lack of empathy following his statement on 13th March that insisted he would still be going to a rugby league game after announcing that all gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled.
In the United States, President Donald Trump misled the public by contradicting evidence presented by Center for Disease Control (CDC) experts, causing confusion and moral panic. During a press conference in India on 25 February, he declared he was confident that “the whole situation will start working out” as the US government was “very close to a vaccine” (The Verge). To respond, the White House argued Donald Trump was referring to an Ebola vaccine (CNBC), a rebuttal that’s led the public to question the credibility of all his subsequent coronavirus statements
Like misleading messages, inaction is not best practice in times of crisis. A few presidents across the globe such as Cameroonian President Paul Biya have received heavy criticism for going silent at a time when the public needs comforting. Although the country’s ministry of Health has been very responsive on Twitter, answering questions from members of the public and giving them real-time coronavirus updates, the main leader’s inertia has left the public preoccupied. Rather than addressing the public himself, he instructed the prime minister “to put in place a 13-point response strategy and has called on members of the public through social media to respect the measures put in place” (QZ).
These examples of crisis communications responses offer the same underlying lessons. In times of crisis, transparency and empathy are essential to reassure the people most affected by the crisis. Facts and compassion help frontline officials allay fears and minimise the sense of panic. As we wait for this crisis to pass, here are some key learnings from the responses we’ve seen across the world so far:
Acknowledge the situation – It’s about recognising that the nation is going through hardship while reassuring the public that as a respected and credible leader, you are on top of things. Needless to say contradictory and confusing messages should be avoided.
Display empathy – In times of crisis, the nation expects compassion from its leaders. Empathy can be a great comfort to anxious and overwhelmed members of the public. Empathy is also about thanking those on the frontlines fighting against the virus, such as the health practitioners who put their lives on the line for the greater good.
Be transparent – Give the public tangible facts and measures to help keep them abreast of the situation’s developments, reminding them that they are valued citizens.
Reassure – There is nothing more effective than a clear call to action. Not only does it reinforce a sense of belonging to a united nation, it also reassures them they are not alone.
For information on how Allegory are handling the crisis please visit our team update blog. Alternatively to find out how we can help with crisis communications planning, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t make the same mistake some of these world leaders have.