Political Communications In The Time of Pandemic

When crisis comes, the traditional communications tools of politics will backfire

A time of crisis is no time for partisanship. It’s a fool’s errand that will only reduce one’s political capital as quickly as a compulsive gambler at the craps table. In both cases, the game is fixed. When it comes to winning, pandemics have the odds on their side, just like casinos.

There are two opposing approaches to crisis communications. One, all-hands-on-deck, that requires the leader to be seen at the centre of coordinating every action, or the other, denial, that – like social distancing – tries to make sure the leader gets nothing on them. And, while the world now is obsessed about how Donald Trump initially chose the latter (“it will all go away by April, miraculously”), the truth is, pandemics, like all crises, eat political messaging for breakfast.

Unlike political bread-and-butter issues – promises to ‘fix’ the economy, the environment, or healthcare; a crisis cannot be ‘fixed’. When Exxon spilled millions of gallons of oil onto the Alaskan coast, that environmental disaster could not be cleaned up with a mop full of key messages. When a nuclear reactor melted down in Fukushima, Japanese leaders could not communicate their way out the fact that a disaster was being televised, live.

Debates about what governments should have done before any crisis even arises are valuable only in hindsight. Preparing for a pandemic, while justifiable in terms of personal and economic well-being has little political value. Leaders get no praise for crisis avoidance. That is the role of bureaucrats and shows well on a performance review.

The get-ahead-of-it strategy of government to address the last potential worldwide pandemic proves this – so much so that most people have forgotten it ever happened. It was called Y2K. Most every organization in the world feared that computers would be unable to recognize the changes in their internal clocks from 1999 to 2000, and then they’d freeze up. Planes would crash. Banks would lose trillions of dollars. Phone systems would fail, and the world economy would collapse. So, the world spent four years and more than $500 billion to prevent it.

On the morning of January 1st, 2000, the world awoke to hangovers, but the planes were still flying. Yet, no political leader would wake to hear praise for a highly effective preventative strategy. The only question was whether the enormous expenditures were worth it. And, the Canadian who had convinced the world to act against the threat? There’s not a statue to be found, anywhere. Leaders are never congratulated for paying insurance premiums. They get paid to win – prophylactic measures be damned.

As effective a marketer as Donald Trump is, he does not realize that you cannot promote your way out of a crisis. The tools of the marketer – of which Trump has in spades – are not the tools of the crisis communicator. And in terms of politics, putting partisanship on the backburner is a recipe for success. The Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, has proved this. Ford is focusing not on himself or his government, but on what people can do, empathizing with their plight, and fighting scofflaws who take advantage of the crisis through hoarding and unsafe workplaces.

During a crisis, the only political commodity at play is trust. Leaders must earn it, every day. This is hard for most politicians to accept, even when they know this to be true.

If you want a playbook, try Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Time Magazine voted it one of the top 100 books ever written. In it, Campbell shows we have been conditioned through the repeated tales of our ancient heroes, just how we expect our current heroes to develop. You can see the structure clearly in such works of literature as Jane Eyre and most spectacularly on films such as Star Wars and The Matrix. Oversimplified, Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ is summarized as: a person is forced to take on a huge challenge and to do so, must overcome many barriers – personal as much as external. Moreover, with their success, they make the world around them a better place.

As the audience for these stories, we come to care about the hero, not so much from their successes, but because of the barriers they’ve overcome. For a real world example, watch New York Governor Cuomo. He is building trust (and is Luke Skywalker to Trump’s Dark Side ruler, the Emperor).

Instinctively, political leaders fear showing us any glimpse of their past errors in judgement, as they know these will be used against them. Any discussion they may have about barriers are usually focused on the partisan landmines that their opponents have placed before them. But in crisis management, the win is not measured by how well you beat up your opponents. Partisan communication boomerangs with all but one’s most ardent supporters.

There is, however, a powerful way to address the past while pivoting to the future. The key phrase is “through this crisis, I have learned …” or “through my experience, I have learned …” After highlighting your internal concerns, the audience will not only hear you, but also listen. Then, you can spell out the facts, be clear about the barriers that need to be overcome and be specific about what you are now doing to overcome them. This is the path to inspiring hope.

While the next crisis will be different from the current pandemic, the communications challenges and their solutions will remain the same.

Political and business leaders need to resist jumping on the “it’s all going to be fine” bandwagon upon which Trump rests so firmly (about everything). It will pull you into early declarations of success that may not stand up with time. The Economist offers similar advice to Boris Johnson (Bagehot, The New Politics, March 28, 2020). The publication reminds him “not to fight today’s battles with yesterday’s weapons”.

For further information please contact: 

Ted Griffith, Principal
Communications & Stakeholder Relations
Campbell Strategies
tedg@campbellstrategies.com