Published on April 19, 2020

Photo: Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we have witnessed many stark examples of strong, responsible leadership – and some examples of not so responsible leadership. This leadership has been demonstrated through legislative action, but also through acts of communication about those actions. One of the best examples of effective crisis and risk communication came from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in late March. While it was delivered in German, an English translation is available here.

It does many things right, but let’s focus on three: (1) not downplaying the challenges faced by citizens, instead explicitly acknowledging them; (2) using known and established science to talk about risk and strategies for dealing with the crisis; and (3) reiterating each individual’s role in lessening the impact of the virus.

Acknowledging the Challenge

The actions necessitated by COVID-19 have had a significant impact on public and private life, and Merkel does not mince words about its severity. Her address starts out by clearly acknowledging the changes that have occurred:

Millions of you cannot go to work, your children cannot go to school or kindergarten, theatres and cinemas and shops are closed, and, perhaps what is most difficult, we all miss social encounters that we otherwise take for granted. Of course, each of us has many questions and concerns in a situation like this, about the days ahead.

And throughout her speech, she returns to this over and over again.

I know how dramatic the restrictions already are: no events, no trade fairs, no concerts any more, and, for the time being, also no school, no university, no kindergarten, no more playing at the playground. I know how invasive the closures that the Federation and the Länder have agreed to are in our lives, and also in terms of how we see ourselves as a democracy.

By not downplaying the severity of the changes, Merkel builds a relationship to the audience based on a mutual understanding of their shared experience. In fact, Merkel communicates her own anxiety about implementing the restrictions that have caused those challenges.

Allow me to assure you that, for someone like me, for whom the freedom of travel and the freedom of movement were a hard-fought right, such restrictions can only be justified if they are absolutely imperative.

For figures of authority who need to communicate to a public about clear and present danger, it is often tempting to deny a threat or to downplay the measures put in place to mitigate those threats. Instead, Merkel acknowledges that nobody is happy to be socially isolating or distancing, and by doing so, builds trust with her audience, making them more willing to listen to her message.

Using Established Science to Talk about Risk

Not only does Merkel acknowledge that the situation is dire, she admits that much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, or what the outcome of the crisis will be:

The situation is serious, and the outcome uncertain.

Uncertainty is what is known at the moment. Unlike other world leaders, who have resorted to unproven scientific therapies and questionable timelines for a return to “business-as-usual,” Merkel provides a realistic assessment of risk, even if the conclusion is “we don’t know.” This admission of uncertainty can certainly be challenging messaging for a world leader, but Merkel does assure her citizens that every effort is being made to address the situation, and that her actions and understanding is informed by the science.

As far as the epidemic is concerned – and everything I tell you about this comes from the Federal Government’s ongoing consultations with the experts from the Robert Koch Institute and other scientists and virologists: the most intensive research is being conducted around the world, but there is still neither a way to treat the coronavirus, nor is there a vaccine.

Despite that uncertainty, and the anxiety it might cause, Merkel does express a faith that science will lead us in the right direction, that a vaccine and treatment will be possible, reframing the question from “if” to “when.”

As long as this is the case – and this is what is guiding all of our actions – then only one thing matters, namely that we slow the spread of the virus, flatten the curve over the course of several months and buy time. Time in which the research community can develop a medicine and vaccine. But, above all, time to allow those who fall ill to receive the best possible treatment.

Acknowledging uncertainty and risk is a key part of authoritative messaging in a crisis, but so is communicating confidence in science’s ability to, in time, deal with the crisis.

Invoking Individual and Community Responsibility

Merkel’s message, however, succeeds primarily by calling on a sense of personal responsibility for both individual and community well being. Speaking about the victims of COVID-19, she states:

These are not just abstract numbers in statistics, but this is about a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner – this is about people. And we are a community in which each life and each person counts.

This statement brings the crisis into the realm of the deeply personal and individual, even as it reminds us that we are each a part of a community, and that we must act as one in order to stop the spread of the virus.

Let me talk now about what I believe is most urgent today. All measures taken by the state would come to nothing if we were to fail to use the most effective means for preventing the virus from spreading too rapidly – and that is we ourselves. As indiscriminately as each one of us can be affected by the virus, each and every one of us must help. First and foremost, by taking seriously what matters today. Not panicking, but also not thinking for a single moment that he or she doesn’t matter after all. No one is expendable. Everyone counts, and we need a collective effort.

By invoking the “we” – a strategy we’ve already spoken about in relation to the COVID-19 crisis – and bringing together the individual and collective, Merkel creates messaging that allows her audience to see the significance of personal action.

And finally, even in a time when the state is taking extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, largely by restricting the individual freedom, Merkel explains this communication as an attempt at transparency and to foster democracy:

I’m addressing you in this unconventional way today because I want to tell you what guides me as Federal Chancellor and all my colleagues in the Federal Government in this situation. This is part of what open democracy is about: that we make political decisions transparent and explain them. 

Good communication is key to managing risk and uncertainty well, especially in times of crisis. Merkel’s speech demonstrates how acknowledging your audience’s position, telling the truth to your constituents (even if that truth isn’t comforting), articulating faith in science and bridging the individual with the communal can create confidence in a leader’s actions, which is so key to trust and to fostering appropriate action.