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Leading in a Crisis: Committing to Clear Crisis Communications

Why ‘meaning-making’ matters

In every crisis, it is essential that government and public sector leaders provide a compelling story. A good crisis narrative teaches the public about the realities of the predicament. It conveys what leaders know, do not know and cannot know, and what they are doing to figure out as much as possible. It recognises emotions and sacrifices. It conveys social norms and political commitments. It instills hope and radiates confidence An effective crisis narrative shapes public perceptions and channels public emotions and collective behavior in positive directions. We call this ‘meaning-making’ and it is a critical task of crisis management. It combines the various tools of political communication: written (press releases, parliamentary briefings, staff emails), verbal (speeches, press conferences, media interviews, debates, vlogs) and symbolic instruments (visiting sites and facilities; engaging with victims, responders and staff; and attending funerals and memorial services).

Most leaders intuitively understand that meaning-making in a crisis is critical. Yet, many leaders find this task difficult to perform. The COVID-19 crisis has already produced a sizeable list of avoidable errors:

  • prolonged prevarication
  • confused and contradictory messages
  • too much talking, not enough listening
  • maintaining a façade of being in control
  • promises that cannot be kept
  • initiating blame games

We’ve unpacked decades of crisis research to explore key lessons for leaders to help them ‘make meaning’ in times of a mega-crisis.

Communication failures can damage other parts of the response

The occurrence of an emergency and its escalation into a full-blown crisis tests the social contract between governments and citizens. It calls into question the behaviour of authorities and the functioning of public organisations, as people ask how could this have happened and why were we not better prepared? It undermines popular trust and institutional legitimacy. Leaders need to actively counter this trust deficit if they want to remain effective.

Leaders who fail, by clumsy wording or dreadful performance, deepen rather dampen the feeling of crisis. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward’s sullen claim that he ‘wanted his life back’ after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico undermined political and societal trust in the multinational. UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s wooden and perfunctory performance at the scene of the 2017 Grenfell fire tragedy also comes to mind.

In Australia, the confusion around Scott Morrison’s perceived delay in returning from holiday during the most recent bushfires, followed by the optics of his initial visit to a disaster-stricken community prompted howls of outrage and a temporary drop in his approval ratings.

When leaders strike the right chord, engaging the “better angels” on the shoulders of the people (to borrow an image from Abraham Lincoln), the effect can be unifying, empowering, even catalytic. Winston Churchill powered Londoners through the massive bombings during World War II. Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address (‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’) and his ‘fireside chats’ sent messages of hope and determination to Depression-stricken Americans. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, connected with the Muslim community that had been targeted in the deadly 2019 lone-wolf mosque attack. These leaders showed that meaning-making matters.

The absence of a compelling and appropriate crisis narrative opens the field to contenders who seek to present an alternative reading of the situation. Journalists, independent experts, the armchair commentariat on social media, disaffected citizens, monitorial watchdogs, political rivals, stakeholder lobbyists, disenchanted victims – there are plenty of actors who will seek to fill the void.

Leaders should expect counter-narratives, even “framing contests”, especially in today’s monitory democracies, where executive power is being read, checked and challenged as a matter of routine.

To read about communication pitfalls to be avoided, continue here.

This piece was written by Arjen Boin (Leiden University), Allan McConnell (Sydney University), Eric Stern (State University of New York) and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University) for ANZSOG.  Created by government for government, the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) works with their member governments and university partners to strengthen the quality of public sector leadership in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Photo Credit:  Stockcake

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