Comms is a secret superpower world leaders can use (or misuse) during the COVID-19 crisis

As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, the true power of good (and bad) comms has become clear: in the right hands, good communication has superpower properties – literally making the difference between life and death.

In the hands of world leaders, comms is a superpower with life-or-death implications, argues Jessica Duncanson
In the hands of world leaders, comms is a superpower with life-or-death implications, argues Jessica Duncanson

But what makes for superpowered comms? Clear messaging, at the right time, and in the right tone (honest, empathetic, and informed) is a decent rule of thumb, but how do the comms efforts of the world’s leaders stack up?

Enter my first superhero – PR graduate and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Throughout the crisis she has delivered clear messaging in simple, unambiguous terms.

She communicated early, sharing a four-stage alert process, and updates against this regularly.

Her tone is compassionate and collaborative when she talks to her ‘team of five million’.

Despite the potentially unpopular move of going ‘hard’ and ‘early’, 80 per cent of New Zealanders are happy with the government’s response, according to recent polls.

Ardern’s daily updates – from the podium or in a casual sweatshirt, via Facebook – may just have given New Zealand the chance to eradicate the coronavirus.

On to Chancellor Angela Merkel; less flamboyant, but still a superhero in my eyes.

She has approached the crisis with her characteristic steady, sensible style.

A scientist herself, she has drawn on the expertise around her to explain her decisions, while admitting when she doesn’t know something.

The crisis has brought out a warmer side to Merkel.

In her first ever TV address to the nation, she acknowledged, having grown up in communist East Germany, how difficult it is to give up freedoms – adding empathy to her comms approach.

Germany is behind her and Merkel's Conservatives have seen a recent spike in popularity.

Now on to Trump. If Ardern’s book is open, then Trump’s is… fantasy?

It's interesting that his preferred medium is Twitter.

His comms approach reflects the reactive, often ill-informed and blame-storming nature of social media.

I’m not sure we can learn too much from him, so moving swiftly on… to Boris Johnson.

With the charisma and energy that won over the British public in 2019, he had so much potential – had he taken the issue seriously.

As the scale of the crisis revealed itself, communication moved from frivolous – it’s fine to shake hands with coronavirus patients, just wash your hands guys – to ambiguous.

The onus shifted to the public to do the right thing – pubs could stay open but people should not visit; symptomatic people should voluntarily self-isolate; it’s the crisis of our lives, but not enough for Boris to chair a Cobra meeting – and finally to instructive.

When the lockdown announcement finally came, the tone was vaguely threating; but at least we knew what we needed to do.

Britain has broadly complied but, to coin Johnson's own phrase, the ‘dither and delay’ at the outset has probably cost lives.

History is still being written and will sort the superheroes from the villains.

But never in recent times have the decisions that leaders make, and how they communicate them, had such life-or-death implications.

Jessica Duncanson is a senior comms consultant at Social & Local CIC

Thumbnail credit: Getty Images

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