Keeping citizens informed of public measures to control a pandemic should be critical in dealing with it. But what happens when the communicated message pivots? Going from ‘no cause for alarm’ to ‘social distancing’ to lockdowns constitute dramatic leaps in communication statements. Do such changes in political communication impact confidence in the communicators or the message communicated? While it is too early to determine political outcomes that are months or years away a contemporaneous commentary may be valuable to future analysis.
As a student of politics I have been greatly influenced by William Riker. He wrote one of the modern classics on political rhetoric, “the art of political manipulation”. He makes the argument that political entrepreneurs constantly seek to affect the order of preference of others. This he terms heresthetics. Hypothetically the costs of different actions (or inaction) are weighed by all actors; the heresthetician will benefit by affecting the order of preference of others to benefit their own agenda.
I am biased here by a focus on visible states and prominent political actors. They present good candidates for a communications analysis since their actions are thoroughly scrutinized. For instance, it seems obvious that in the US, Donald Trump pegged his reelection campaign on low levels of unemployment and a buoyant stock market. The prospect of an economic downturn or anything disrupting his election platform was initially denounced as a Democrat conspiracy. Boris Johnson in the UK, was focusing on Brexit and publicly claimed citizens needed to let COVID wash over. “Herd immunity” would take care of the virus, where the weaning of some of the weakest appeared an inevitable price! In hindsight this appears a lackadaisical attitude to the crisis. The British Prime Minister openly stated during a press briefing, that he was happy to ignore his own government’s advice on handshaking. He therefore acted as a vector of contagion by handshaking with covid patients and others in a hospital! At the time of writing, he has just emerged from three days of intensive care treatment after a COVID 19 infection.
Lets first consider the timeline and information available on the pandemic through mainstream media. It should be recognised that key information is initially available to governments via their intelligence sources and then released to citizens via media outlets. So, what we read and see in the press should be somewhat delayed from what governments know. By mid-February it was obvious to the casual observer that a global pandemic was inevitable. A simple extrapolation of standard contagion models, given contagion and mortality rates indicated a pending calamity. As the Washington Post argued it was just a question of best strategies to mitigate and no longer about containing an outbreak at its source.
Until mid March the governments of Britain and the US conveyed a message of appeasement and reassurance although the financial system and the markets were already in meltdown. While governments have to maintain a communication strategy that would calm markets and contain citizen panic (i.e. avoid toilet paper shortages; the burning of mobile phone antennas etc) they have to also be credible. Placing someone in charge of a response to a health crisis that is on the record for challenging medical science on smoking (i.e. US Vice President, Mike Pence) does not inspire confidence. On accepting the appointment VP Pence famously declared “we are ready for anything”. Three weeks later his boss lamented the state of unpreparedness in the US.
So, what happened when these political actors pivoted the tenor and content of their message on the face of mounting evidence of the severity of the pandemic? At the end of February people in the UK were told that washing their hands was adequate protection. In the US citizens were told their government is doing a great job and that they should not worry because the virus will miraculously disappear. At the same time the governments of the US and UK knew that thousands of travelers flew in from Wuhan during January, before the Chinese lockdown of the province. By mid-March the tenor had changed. The virus was now the enemy and each country was at a war footing. With stockmarkets collapsing and unemployment shooting up, the rhetoric in the US now shifted to a rallying cry for unity in adversity. While in the UK the PM declared on the 17th of March that Britain is engaged in a war against coronavirus. The BBC evoked World War II in simile.
Was this pivot successful? The circumstances are unique. The uncertainty and obvious social and economic impact of the situation has turned people onto media. This presented a media opportunity for political entrepreneurs. They could pivot the message, while at the same time remain in control of the information stage to the pandemic response. It could of course be argued that it is reality on the ground that forced these actors to shift their rhetoric. But they did have other options to declaring war on the virus. Their choice to re-frame the rhetoric from defending incompetence to a fight with an invisible enemy left little room for counterarguments. And it has been initially effective.
Indeed, by late March 60% of Americans approved Trumps handling of the crisis. His personal approval rating jumped from 44% to 49% as he pivoted the message to a “war challenge”. Boris Johnson’s approval rating improved even more dramatically in the same period. Between 12 and 26th of March his public approval increased from 42 to 55% (with net positive approval shifting from 6 to 29%)!
It will be some time before we will be able to determine whether this or future rhetorical pivots will make a lasting impression on the electorate. At this point they have been effective by refocusing attention from the inadequacy of the earlier response to this pandemic to an “apolitical” war on an invisible enemy.
And some interesting links
PS. And a caveat. This is potentially a case study in the art of political manipulation and not a review of political communications.