If we think of well-known crises and the key communications activity that took place within them, we often think of politics and political leaders. As we continue to experience the worst global crisis in modern times with the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth exploring what good communication in a crisis looks like, and what, if anything, we can learn from history.
In major crises, leaders have many challenges and many roles and responsibilities. Some of these are operational and focus on ensuring the machinery of the organisation keeps moving and serving the stakeholders in that organisation’s value chain. But there are also several non-operational challenges that leaders face during a crisis – communications being one of them.
When talking about the many hats leaders wear, it’s common to hear the phrase ‘communicator-in-chief’ to describe the CEO. This wordplay on commander-in-chief is arguably truer than ever in a crisis scenario. Communications is fundamental to crisis mitigation and recovery efforts, and leaders play a huge role in this – whether focused on internal or external audiences. To explore this further, let’s take a look at a few examples of political leaders communicating in a crisis.
Churchillian speeches in crisis
For many major crises in recent history, we can point to a particular communication – in many cases a speech from a political leader that defined the response to that event, and whether it was handled well or poorly.
When we analyse these speeches we can look through a number of different lenses. You can look at these communications at quite a granular level, explore the rhetorical devices used and their delivery. But for the majority of the audience hearing these speeches, it’s not the anaphora, nor the amplification of the voice that stands out. What sticks with us is how they made us feel, and what response they brought about.
If we look back to one of the most celebrated orators of the last century, Winston Churchill, and some of his most famous speeches, what do we think of? Oddly enough, this is one of the few instances where devices like anaphora and peroration do come to mind, as many recall the “we will fight on the beaches” section at the close of his speech to the House of Commons in early June 1940.
These devices are not used simply for the sake of clever speechwriting. They are used to influence the emotions of the audience and rally them around a unifying cause – in Churchill’s own words, “victory at all costs”.
This speech, delivered in the House of Commons, was not repeated by him as a live radio broadcast that evening as some others were. Instead extracts were read by the newsreader on that evening’s BBC news broadcast. However, English author Vita Sackville-West commented at the time in a letter:
“Even repeated by the announcer, it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine. I think that one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words’ sake.”
This speech, much like his “finest hour” oratory, just two weeks later – announcing the start of what would be the Battle of Britain – were not just showboating, but designed and delivered to boost the confidence of the British people, strengthen their resolve, and unify them around the shared goal of repelling the next wave of German offensive.
While the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has been described as a good orator, and even Churchillian in nature – himself having written a biography of the wartime leader – his communications during this crisis have been largely criticised, missing the mark for many.
Political speeches and PR
Moving forwards in history. We have faced many more crises since the end of the Second World War. In exploring this topic further, two major speeches from US Presidents in the 1960s come to mind.
The first is John F Kennedy’s presidential address during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 22nd 1962, Kennedy appeared on television to tell the world that Russian nuclear missiles had been discovered in an installation in Cuba. This speech was remarkable not only for its clarity of delivery (by another talented orator), but for its transparency and detailed explanations of what actions had been taken and would be taken next by the US government. In this time of peak anxiety at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy’s speech conveyed the facts accurately and clearly, explained the logic behind decisions, and sought to reassure the American people that all that could be done was being done to keep them safe and prevent nuclear escalation. This is a classic example of the problem-solution structure, which many storytellers use to great success in modern communications activity.
The second is from just three years later and concerning a domestic crisis in the United States. On March 15th 1965, a week after deadly racial violence had erupted in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his famous “we shall overcome” speech in an address to the nation.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King and over 500 supporters had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination but were attacked by police, leading to the death of King supporter and Minister, James J. Reeb.
While looking at the speech today, some of the language is notably of its time, yet it is also clear to see that Johnson’s empathy shone through in his address, and his use of language – notably the phrase “we will overcome” – brought people closer together at a time when racism was tearing communities apart.
The march from Selma to Montgomery eventually took place six days later, with President Johnson introducing new legislation in August that year to ban the practice of administering literacy, knowledge or other tests which had been traditionally used to keep African Americans from voting.
The power of political speeches
Great political speeches in crises, like those we have seen above, unite communities, foster mutual understanding, communicate a shared vision, and rally people around a unifying cause. As communicators, there is a lot we can learn from this. There’s also a lot we can apply to public relations and content marketing activity for brands during the current climate, and even in our day-to-day activity in more conventional times.
With a crisis such as this, in which lives are being lost in huge numbers everyday, it’s important not to be seen to be profiteering or ambulance-chasing in your activity – either operationally or from a communications standpoint. Every communication, whether internal or external, should be carefully considered and worded so that there is no room for misinterpretation. Difficult decisions will need to be made, but by explaining the logic behind those decisions and communicating the facts clearly and transparently, communicators can limit the damage to those organisations’ reputations.
It’s also incredibly important to show empathy. Few among us are unaffected by this crisis, so it should go without saying that everything we say and do on behalf of clients as communicators should be seen through the lens of what is happening in the world today. Emotional intelligence, care, and consideration should be at the heart of communications activity.
Businesses have sometimes fallen foul of this in the past. Contrast the communications of AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandez with that of BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward at their height of their respective crises in 2014 and 2010. One immediately took to social channels to apologise and communicate the facts as they emerged, not afraid to show human emotion in the face of an airline disaster that threatened his company’s existence. The other, made an incredibly ill-thought-through remark that focused on himself, despite the devastating impact his company’s operations had had on the environment in the Gulf of Mexico and the loss of 11 lives.
Communicating during COVID-19
Demonstrating empathy is one of the most crucial elements of communicating in any crisis, and the examples above showcase the difference between getting it right, and getting it very, very wrong. In recent weeks and months, few have communicated more effectively than New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Many have praised Ardern’s approach, highlighting her focus on care and clarity of meaning, in stark contrast to other world leaders, who have focused their communications on giving directions and seeking compliance.
Perhaps this is unsurprising, after all she does have a degree in communications, but as one of the youngest world leaders at only 39, she is being touted as the most effective during our current crisis. She even manages to inject much-needed humour into her communications, speaking to younger audiences’ concerns about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny.
In many ways, the key to effective leadership and communications remains unchanged, despite these testing times. Organisations and their leaders need to use transparency and empathy to build trust and meaningful connections with their target audience. They need to be clear and precise in what they are saying and asking their audience to do. And, they need to ensure what they are saying resonates with them emotionally to ensure that the intended action is being taken.
Communicators should look to capture the empathy of Jacinda Ardern and Lyndon B. Johnson, the transparency and clarity of John F. Kennedy, and the emotional connection of Winston Churchill in their content and communications during this time. There will be different levels of each needed depending on what the communication is intended to achieve. A change in operational procedures communicated to partners via email, will be very different to a CEO delivering an all-hands address to employees via video conference, but these principles should be at the top of communicators’ minds. As ever, the combination of good judgement and skilled communications advisors is a necessity to navigate this landscape.
Communications professionals are well-versed in helping clients get the tone of their communications right and land key messages with target audiences, in all sorts of scenarios, crises included. They can help advise on what to say, when, and how to say it to ensure your organisation runs as successfully as possible taking all things into consideration.
If you want to make sure your communications are coming across in the right way during these turbulent times, speak to an expert communications strategist. They can help you navigate through the uncertainty, ensuring your key stakeholders are kept up-to-date and engaged with your business during this period of disruption.
A version of this post first appeared on the Babel PR blog here.