Three countries, one pandemic: different ways to communicate in a crisis
Article by Anna Groh | Illustration by Tommaso Bisagni
“The coronavirus may currently be the world’s top threat,
but a very close second is the political leader who doesn’t see it that way”.
When it comes to leadership in a crisis, the chosen way of communication can affect millions of lives. Making the right choices matters more than ever. Just recently, leaders from every country were given a chance to prove their potential when the COVID-19 virus unexpectedly spread all over the world within weeks. As Paul Taylor from Politico points out, this crisis truly “brings out the best and the worst in world leaders”.
Since every country is facing the same threat, the pandemic provides an unique opportunity to compare how each of their leaders is dealing with this high-pressure situation.
In the following, we will take a closer look at how Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Giuseppe Conte approached the crisis. This article tries to give a short insight into the strategies of communication they followed and why they might differ, not without trying to see their personal background as a lead to their behaviour.
Crisis management strategies
In order to understand the role that each actor is playing, it’s important to make sense of what is happening and to define different frames of the event: who is the victim? was it intentional or accidental? caused by humans or by external forces like natural disasters? In the field of Public Relations, one can distinguish between two basic communication strategies: defensive and offensive.
When choosing the defensive way, people in charge try to conceal or deny the issue. This can eventually lead to an information-vacuum in the public, giving rumors ground to spread around. Many times, it comes to communication discrepancies, which in the worst-case costs credibility and destroys trust. The offensive way, in contrast, urges the leader to face the facts and emotionally accept the extent of the crisis. Responsibility is taken and a transparent way to communicate with the public is chosen. This strategy usually is a obligation if the crisis threatens human lives.
Whichever overall way might be chosen, it comes with typical reaction patterns towards the crisis. We’ll look at four common reactions: “Denying” usually comes with attacking others and finding a scapegoat to blame; when choosing to “diminish” the issue, the speaker tries to find justification, eventually deplores mistakes that have been made. If the speaker tries to apologize for what went wrong and offers compensation in an appropriate extend, this is called “rebuilding“. Finally, the “bolstering”-method offers the opportunity to remind the audience of something else, distracting them from the current situation (Tamanini, 2016-pdf here).
Four months ago, at the beginning of February, all I knew was that there is an outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan, China. This seemed to be so far away though, so insignificant to me, sitting in Europe and being thousands of kilometres away from the event. That it would strongly affect the lives of me, my family and my friends the way it is today is something no one would have guessed.
Conte steps out of his shadow
Italy as one of the first European countries being hit by the virus, was not prepared for the enormous extend of the outbreak that claimed the lives of around 800 deaths per day at it’s peak time (Giuffrida, Farrer, Safi; 2020). And Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a former law professor, didn’t exactly have an easy start into his career: for a long time, he was criticized due to his lack of experience in political offices, having no “history” and no party affiliation (Horowitz, 2019).
He got the chance to prove himself when Northern Italy faced one of its darkest hours. When at first no one really understood the wide range of the new threat, a mix from different local restrictions and messages around the country created uncertainty (Ferraresi, 2020). But once the extend of the threat became undeniable and things began to get out of control, Conte chose to take courageous steps and facing the facts.
On March 9th, he imposed strong restrictions by a time many other countries might have seen those as “overreactions”: a complete, national-wide lockdown. While doing so, he accompanied his people, talking to them directly via Facebook-Live, showing empathy and creating a sense of national solidarity. “We will make it through this together,” he told his people (Taylor, n.d.).
Merkel’s scientific approach
A little later in Germany, the number of cases jumped up exponentially, as well. Italy serving as a view to the future, it was a fact that the virus was underestimated for too long. Angela Merkel decided to prepare Germany for what was coming in the best way possible, shutting borders and later public live down shortly after Italy has done so, on March 22. The tactics: slowing down the spread by limiting social contacts to a maximum and therefore, relieving Germany’s health system. In addition, a national-wide mask-duty for most places outside was imposed by the end of April.
But all those decisions were carefully based on scientific work- what many don’t know is that Merkel originally comes from the field of science as she worked as a physician before she got into politics. Connected to her past and her broad scientific network, she approached the crisis in a very facts-based way, weighting them out against oneother and taking advices from many experts (Miller, 2020).
For her, there was no room for wish-thinking or denying what was happening. Interestingly, her leadership style was always described as too unemotional and too analytical before the crisis (Miller, 2020). Now that seems to change: She appeals to her own limitations as human being and shows emotions during her speeches. As Taylor from Politico underlines, when Merkel gave a television speech she chose a simple “Take good care of yourselves and your loved ones”.
Merkel and Conte both chose the offensive way of communication, meaning they did not hold anything back from the public, acted transparent and emotionally accepted to take responsibility for the crisis. Both emphasized national solidarity, showing that everyone is in the same boat (even them).
Wish-thinking at the wrong time
“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” – Donald Trump, February 28.
As this statement suggests, Trump barely accepted reality, and instead tried to downplay all of it. He denies the danger for weeks, and when it wasn’t deniable anymore, he found himself a scapegoat (Qiu, 2020). It’s easy to loose track of who he wants to blame: The WHO, China, the Democratic Party? He missed the chance to implement the measures needed when other parts of the world already did so long time ago, as denial usually results in a delayed response.
Other days he embeds the situation, comparing the event with older stories like the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 which was handled by former president Obama, who he critizises in order to distract from himself (Qiu, 2020). Those are typical reactions for a defensive way of communication. At the end, Trump drowns in contradictions as he gives press conferences on a daily basis. He leaves the way he meant “Make America great again!” open for interpretation.
As former CEO of the concern “Trump Organizations”, he’s a genuine businessmen. And as through the eyes of a businessmen, saving the economy is indispensible and has to come first. Not to forget, he has always been averse to accept scientific facts (i.e. the climate change) which is why he didn’t listen to most of his experts, in contrast to Conte and Merkel.
At a glance
Following the Harvard Business Review, there are several factors inevitable to successful crisis communication in times like this. Early reaction and precautionary measures are key, since a delayed response only resulted in an even stronger hit by the crisis. While the USA with more than one million cases so far doesn’t seem to get control of the situation anytime soon, Germany and Italy have already lowered their infection curve. The best time to take strong action is very early, when the threat doesn’t appear so dangerous and people are afraid to overreact (Pisano, Sadun, Zanini; 2020).
Moreover, the reliance on people without a political agenda to follow, like experts, is very important as well. The crisis reveals that trustworthiness is the most precious thing you can have as a leader, and therefore, honesty is crucial. Eventually, one of the most important steps within a crisis is the work that has to be done when it’s over: Evaluating what has happened and why it has happened, in order to perform better next time (Roselieb, 1999).