Can politicians communicate well in times of health crisis?
Since the beginning of the year, and as in 2020, each week has been punctuated by the Government’s multiple and sometimes contradictory declarations, detailing the evolution of the epidemic in France and defending its decisions. These decisions range from stricter health regulations to curfews and lockdown, without the French people necessarily understanding the choices made. In reaction, members of the opposition question the Government and the President of the Republic, criticizing the measures taken, without always being very consistent – let’s admit it. When, in early January, some elected members of the right-wing opposition demanded the adoption of measures stricter than the curfew, such as Jean Rottner, President Les Républicains of the Grand Est region, who called it a “half-measure”, the President Les Républicains of the Bouches-du-Rhône department claimed at the same time on Twitter: “Against the Curfew at 6 pm! (…) Let’s test ourselves, let’s get vaccinated, but let’s not lock ourselves anymore! ». This mirrors the French people’s ambivalent stance who, in a similar poll ten days ago, were in majority in favor of a new confinement but against a reinforcement of sanitary restrictions (IFOP-JDD 31/01/21). It is obvious that politicians have difficulty to convince and that the balance to be found to win the support of the French people, to reassure them while maintaining a maximum level of precaution without creating concern, is more than difficult to achieve. Does this mean that it is not possible to communicate effectively in these delicate and unpredictable times?
This is not certain as an analysis of nearly a year of policy communication on the epidemic shows, allowing us to draw some practical lessons.
A look back at nearly a year of communication
Since mid-March, in France, two types of communication can be considered as having achieved their objectives, even if they oppose one another.
The decisions concerning the first two confinements were taken within a few hours, following a sudden worsening of the epidemic in France. A deterioration of the sanitary situation which required an immediate response at the top of the Government, and which resulted in a solemn speech of the President of the Republic during evening news. These speeches made it possible to explain the causes, to announce the main measures, to give the feeling of an executive branch firmly at the helm of the fight against the pandemic while ensuring the indispensable solidarity, illustrated by the now famous “whatever it costs”. The nature of the measures taken and their details gave the firm impression that the executive was in action. This reassuring observation created support among the population, regardless of the efforts asked.
In a very different, almost opposite manner, during the first confinement, the long press conferences of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Sunday afternoon marked the spirits because of the educational effort that characterized them, and which was reflected in the floor given to experts, and the modesty shown by the head of government who never missed an opportunity to remind all the uncertainties and unknowns about the pandemic and the struggle to contain it. At the very least, Edouard Philippe’s popularity benefited greatly from his management of the crisis.
Between these two extremes, few speeches were convincing, and, from an almost constant communication, a feeling of cacophony emerged, a permanent impression of improvisation, inconsistencies sometimes bordering on the absurd, which fueled skepticism and then the opposition or even open rejection of health restrictions.
A few practical lessons
Apart from the most “radical or regal” measures which, as we pointed out, need vertical and solemn announcements, only pedagogy can lead to support, and it requires a permanent effort of consultation both with politicians and with the actors of civil society – consultation being easier and more effective at local rather than national level. Referring to prefects and local elected representatives for the adaptation of measures would enable a more hands-on and convincing communication. Even though the second epidemic in Germany showed the limits of a very decentralized system. In a different way, at the national level, the announcement by the Prime Minister that a new lockdown would be the subject to a prior debate in Parliament goes in the direction of making everyone accountable and is therefore welcome.
Moreover, on such unpredictable subjects, one must guard against polemics and short sentences intended to be repeated over and over again by news channels and to make the headlines.
Punch lines can quickly turn their authors into punching balls. Who does not remember the Government’s spokeswoman’s assertions in January 2020 that the French could not live with masks? Or of the Health Minister’s reply in March that the virus did not stop at borders, to justify the refusal to close those of European countries.
The Government, like the opposition, would have everything to win with less speeches on the subject and a real centralization, in each camp, of messages. The multiplication of statements can only weaken their purpose unless they are part of a coherent educational effort.
Finally, temporality, and therefore time management, are essential elements of credibility and consequently of effective communication. As in all crisis management. One could not fail to be surprised, at the end of January, that at the same time, the executive announced the return of students to universities and the study of a national lockdown. How to mobilize on such a large gap? It is necessary to know, even under pressure, how to resist the temptation to respond and act in the moment as well as resisting to give in to the illusion of the effects of the announcement, to wait for the right moment.
In the fight against COVID-19, politicians must schematically arbitrate between three constraints: the number of intensive care beds occupied by victims of the epidemic, the level of economic activity and, more recently but increasingly, the mood of French people. A subtle and shifting balance that justifies a great consistency in the pedagogy and a permanent prudence in its expression.