In a context of recurring crises, mobilizing without worrying: the difficult equation of the government communication
After two years of health crisis, as a new wave of Covid is expected this autumn and another epidemic is developing, and as the war in Ukraine and its attendant economic destabilization are taking root, a real climatic disaster hit France this summer. Three overwhelming heatwaves, a historic drought, and multiple fires: nothing was spared to the people who are facing up to the situation with calm and dignity. In Tours, the Loire can almost be crossed by foot, in Gironde, the gymnasiums are filled with evacuated families, and in over a hundred cities, drinking water is no longer flowing from the tap.
Summer is not over yet, but for several months now the government has been engaged in the perilous exercise of preparing people for tensions in energy supply this winter. Or even to face a real shortage. With a remarkable sequence on the theme of sobriety, which is becoming an established part of the debate. For the first time, the French could run out of gas or electricity in a significant and lasting way. This is in a context where they are already weakened by this almost uninterrupted succession of crises, and remain, despite the governmental aids, worried about their purchasing power.
If the concept of crisis is defined by a break in the usual order of things, it would seem that today we are experiencing the paradox or oxymoron of the “permanent crisis”. Government communication must adapt to this new world where events and disasters follow one another and are endlessly renewed. To do so, it must take up a fourfold challenge.
First of all, making citizens understand that the threats are real and the difficulties inevitable. In a developed country that is one of the world’s top seven powers, it is difficult to admit that our model contains such vulnerabilities, and especially that they were not sufficiently anticipated. It is therefore urgent to educate people about the situation and its potential consequences in order to avoid getting lost in a useless and of the capitalist system. The debate should be limited to the fight against scarcity and should not be allowed to get out of hand. The looped images of the various effects of the current crises should help but there will undoubtedly be a need to argue against the “conspiracy theorists” of all kinds, who will not fail to justify uncivil behavior with abracadabrious conspiracy theories on social networks.
Secondly, the challenge will be to convince the French of the necessity to make the required efforts. One of the key factors will be to develop the feeling that they are not only indispensable, but above all fair and equitably distributed: nothing is more dissuasive for the French than the perception of an elite that seems to escape the constraints imposed on the majority. Owners of private jets or impeccable golf courses as well as jet skis drivers to mention just a few recent symbolic examples that have been widely reported and commented on social media. The Instagram account @laviondebernard tracking the movements of the private jet of the CE0 of LVMH has already 70,000 followers, and has caused a lot of buzz! Consequently, the government’s injunctions to ensure that lights are switched off or to avoid email attachments seem derisory. Setting examples will therefore be key.
However, the measures announced must also be perceived as effective and appropriate. Thus, it is desirable and even essential that the government avoids taking decisions, under the pressure of urgency. As a result, some run counter to the objective of sobriety, as it is the case with the reduction granted on the price of petrol and diesel to all motorists. While the principle of helping the most disadvantaged is indisputable, the system chosen benefits to the entirety of the public, regardless of the size of the car and the means of its owner, and therefore includes border workers and foreign tourists who cross France to go to Spain or Italy. After testing and vaccinating our neighbors, for free, we subsidize their transport. So many good reasons not to believe in the effectiveness of the measures and therefore not to comply with the discipline they impose.
Finally, the government must fight against fatalism by not stirring up fears and thus avoid the risk of triggering what is now called “eco-anxiety” or solastalgia, defined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht as a feeling of psychological distress linked to environmental changes. It is gradually spreading and could have the negative consequence of leading the affected populations to abandonment and immobility. A recent example shows that fighting fatalism is possible. While California is experiencing an extreme drought, the implementation of water-saving measures in Los Angeles has been surprisingly successful: water consumption of the city’s inhabitants fell by 9% last June, and by 11% for the month of July. This was achieved through a communication campaign that precisely erased the notion of “restriction” in favor of “preservation of space”. Mobilization for a positive cause rather than restriction through fear or anxiety.
To change individual and collective behaviors as quickly as the situation requires, the government will have to balance the use of these three levers: prescription through regulation and its inevitable corollary of repression, dramatization facing the rising dangers, and finally conviction through education. This is a fine-tuning exercise for which no one has the magic formula.