If you ever wanted a fascinating case study in leadership communication, you’re getting one in real time.
Between an unprecedented mass shooting and devastating bushfires, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have both responded to terrible tragedies in the past year.
Many have praised Prime Minister Ardern and others have piled on Prime Minister Morrison, but let’s see if we can’t learn something from these contrasting leadership communication styles.
Communicate quickly and decisively
In the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks, Prime Minister Ardern didn’t waste any time. “I can tell you one thing right now,” she said, just hours after the attack. “Our gun laws will change.” Knowing that the issue of gun laws was a fraught issue (not unlike climate change in Australia), with previous attempts to tighten New Zealand’s relatively lax gun laws having failed repeatedly, Ardern recognised what had to be done and got on with it.
Prime Minister Morrison, on the other hand, has had to be dragged towards action at practically every turn. He was indecisive, initially shooting down the suggestion that volunteer firefighters should be compensated for their extended time away from work, only to announce such a scheme five days later.
While Morrison has taken some measures over the past week by announcing additional funds, sending in the army, and (starting) to suggest some action on climate change may be required – his response has been a far cry from Prime Minister Ardern’s prompt leadership.
In a crisis situation, you don’t have to have all the answers straight away, but you absolutely must acknowledge what’s happening and lead from ahead by taking decisive action.
Be human and remember the power of non-verbal communication
In times of crisis, no PR strategist can write you the perfect thing to say to someone who has been without food, water and sleep for 24 hours, or put themselves on the front line to defend their homes. No empathy coach (however pricey) can show you the face to make when someone desperately asks you for help. And the more you ‘try’ to do this right, the less authentic it looks.
And you only have to look to research by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian to find out why. His major study, “Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes,” found that 93% of the way we interpret communication at an emotional level is non-verbal. In other words, we pick up non-verbal hidden messages when we communicate with someone. What we interpret—rightly or wrongly—from Prime Minister Morrison’s forced handshakes and odd smirk is a lack of care and empathy.
Contrast that with Jacinda Ardern’s response to Christchurch and the global admiration that followed. “It shouldn’t have been noteworthy,” she said, speaking of her response. “It’s instinctive when you’re mourning with someone to reach out in that way. It just felt to me like a human response … it was a Kiwi response.”
In politics, the boardroom, and workplaces around the world, showing emotion has long been considered inappropriate. That was until Jacinda paved a new way and showed the world that leadership can be imbued with genuine empathy, love and compassion. Her response to the Christchurch attack proves that a leader can be both an effective politician and a human being.
Be a relatable voice for the nation’s grief
Words have power and when a crisis strikes the Prime Minister becomes the country’s comforter-in-chief. Or at least they should. In the wake of the Christchurch tragedy, Jacinda Ardern gave the people of New Zealand language in which to talk about the unprecedented attacks.
- She told the New Zealand Parliament, “One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation.”
- “They are us,” she said speaking about the victims.
- She labelled the incident as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.
- She said her country’s values of compassion and diversity “will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”
- To the perpetrator, she said, “You may have chosen us. We utterly reject and condemn you.”
Many would argue by contrast, that Prime Minister Morrison’s language through much of the bushfire crisis has sought to sheet home blame to the states. Although, he deserves some credit for the gear shift in the past few days: he’s communicating with more empathy, spoke of the need for a “historic change”, and said we need to prepare for a “new normal”.
Understand the distinction between a language of leadership and the language of blame and finger-pointing. Leaders never shift blame. They don’t point the finger. Instead, they take responsibility, take the blame, communicate a vision for the future, and pass on the credit where it’s due.
Walk alongside your people
The moments following a national crisis are no time to retreat. Instead, leaders need to communicate that they’re right beside the people going through the crisis.
Jacinda Ardern wasn’t above or removed from her people after the Christchurch shooting, she was right there beside them. “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage”, she said, speaking to the families of the fallen. The viral images of her embracing those affected by the Christchurch attacks left an entire country feeling supported.
The viral images of Scott Morrison walking away from victims of these horrific fires however, left his people feeling deserted. When he asked one of the fire fighting heroes how he was holding up, the response he received was: “I haven’t eaten all day”. The Prime Minister replied with a pat on the shoulder and a, “I’ll let you get back to it then”.
Standing by your people and enduring the pain with them, however uncomfortable, is a sign of solidarity that shows genuine empathy and builds trust. And everything communicates.
Offer a clear call to action and galvanise the public
Two words: Celeste Barber. The comedian and actress has become a galvanising force, raising more than $50 million, with many people calling for her to run for Prime Minister. She gave the Australian people a powerful call to action and they responded emphatically.
Prime Minister Ardern provides another case in point: speaking to Parliament a few days after the terrorist attack, she said: “He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. And that is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”
“And, to others,” she continued, “I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”
In calling on the public to remember the names of the victims and not give notoriety to the perpetrator, Ardern galvanised the community by offering a clear and strong call to action. This is a repeatable principle for other leaders dealing with crisis.
Harness the power of social media (and remember tone!)
Say what you will of social media, but these platforms have tremendous power in the hands of world leaders. Prime Minister Ardern has mentioned a couple of times she manages her own social media and it certainly reads that way. Her posts following Christchurch were incredibly human, so much so they could have been written by any one of us.
Her post announcing that the New Zealand defence force will be deployed to Australia was humble and relatively modest. She finished the post by saying, “…this is by no means the only thing we can do to help, and we’re at the ready and talking to our neighbours frequently”.
Whereas Prime Minister Morrison’s team chose to hit publish on a slick video in the midst of the fires, authorised by none other than the PM himself, proclaiming all the ways his government is helping, complete with fancy editing and up-beat background music.
Leaders are humble in the way they communicate. They focus on their audience and what they need, rather than self-promoting. Ditch ‘look at how much we’re doing’. Instead, try ‘this is tough, people are suffering, this is what we’re doing, but there’s always more. What else can we do to help?’
Empathise as you would with family members you love, cherish, and respect
Prime Minister Morrison is not without empathy. He’s probably working harder than ever and cares deeply about the Australian people, but he does have a communications problem and he hasn’t anticipated people’s needs on a human and emotional level. Rather than fill us with trust and confidence—rather than radiating warmth and true empathy at a time of natural disaster—the Prime Minister has left us questioning whether he has the qualities needed to comfort.
The point is, effective leaders communicate from the heart. Take any of the seven lessons described above and you’ll quickly realise that putting them into practice requires a little bit of “actually meaning it.” Is it purely about optics, soundbytes, and photo ops, or is your heart really in it to begin with? Because your people will know right away, and that initial take can leave a lasting impression on your legacy.