The unprecedented situation created by the coronavirus makes it possible to speak again and to put into perspective what is called crisis communication.
President Macron seems to have finally realized the gravity of the events by making an official speech on Thursday, March 12.
Saturday evening, the tone went up a notch. A course has been passed, with the establishment of more radical measures. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe asked for the closure of places “not essential to the life of the country” and France entered stage 3 of the epidemic.
However, at the same time, tobacco shops were allowed to remain open and the first round of municipal elections was maintained.
Inconsistencies which have been the subject of strong criticism from certain experts, who considered that the holding of the poll was purely “Politics”…
But this moment offers us an opportunity to come back to the mistakes and obstacles of this crisis management.
The right dose
Of course, you have to reassure in crisis management, but you also have to make decisions. Schools, nurseries, universities are closed, retired doctors are summoned, non-essential places are closed.
Maintaining the first round of municipal elections, however, points to the difficulty of the coherence of Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the face of an evolving situation. “It is urgent to protect the most vulnerable, to curb the epidemic; but we can go to vote ”, that is the message.
The crisis is complexity to manage, so many stakeholders are involved. It is especially complex to find the right dose of actions, words, anticipations.
A dose almost impossible to reach as it is delicate to hold everything at the same time: the economy, the freedom of everyone in a democratic country, the political in times of elections and sanitation of course. This combination is at the heart of the challenge of crisis management, and of crisis management in particular. We are facing a perilous balance to find.
We can also consider that the most accurate tone was only found this last Thursday. For the first time, there has been a change in attitude on the part of President Macron, who affirms health as a priority: “Health first”. And the trend will continue on Saturday with theintervention of Edouard Philippe, who makes decisions with far-reaching consequences for the daily life of the French.
Defender of the nation’s “start-up” at all costs, faced with a worsening crisis, Emmanuel Macron now seems to have returned to the notions of welfare state, to the regal exercise of his task, by evoking solidarity, nation, and health first. All this before the economy …
This “turnaround” is of course revealing; that of the political limits of a start-up nation and with it the difficulties of “new public management” in the face of the crisis.
Ultimately, the welfare state – and it was Macron himself who summoned him in his speech – seems to be the strongest and suitable element to respond to such a health emergency. Is this turning point will be maintained ? The future will tell.
Sometimes contradictory issues
A crisis is managed and the means of this management are conventional. However, there are many obstacles and mistakes are rarely avoided.
The Covid-19 health crisis that we are experiencing and which has been described as pandemic by WHO, is an anxiety-provoking phenomenon linked to an unprecedented context and to the uncertainty concerning the evolution of the situation: uncertainty on the case-fatality rate, on the chain of transmission of the epidemic, on the rapidity of the evolution of the epidemic, but also uncertainty about the economic and financial impacts of this crisis. And faced with the unprecedented, the individual becomes irrational.
It is therefore a question of calmly managing an uncertain and complex situation … precisely avoiding hysterization, drift, overflow to anticipate, not to panic. The president in his speech may have been at the same time reassured, rationalized and at the same time certainly panicked, as consumer assault on supermarkets !
On the other hand, taking into account health, economic and political issues, the objective of any crisis communication is to highlight and explain the effectiveness and relevance of the actions and decisions chosen to manage the problem. The communication strategy therefore consists of informing about the situation, and preserving all credibility in the management of this crisis.
For this, the executive must take into account the expectations, needs and different and sometimes contradictory perceptions on the part of the population, the actors involved and the media.
Thursday March 12, President Macron was playing big, you should not be the Brutal and arrogant Jupiter from the past. We had to let go of the irony, the dubious joke, the brutality towards the unemployed, the yellow vests.
You had to be the leader of a nation, not just any one, of the France Nation within a European bloc. He knew how to let go – at least for a moment – the Macron “start-upeur” and had to manage the crisis, in a speech trying to catch up with previous mistakes, without (yet) talking about stage 3, finally announced on Saturday evening. ..
In his speech, the president recalled the progressive responses of the executive facing the evolution of the situation, opting for a rather traditional communication.
In a time 1, it is always a question of avoiding hysterization. It is the time of “stage 1 of the Covid-19 plan” where the procedures were put in place (posted on 20/02/2020 of a methodological guide Covid-19 epidemic risk preparation for healthcare professionals), also during the dissemination of instructions and alerts on the virus on all communication channels. This communication around these procedures allows and made it possible to seek, collect and analyze information in order to take stock of the situation.
But this stage 1 was interspersed with surprising interventions, notably from the former Minister of Health, Agnes Buzin, who declared January 21, 2020 that “the risk of introducing cases related to this episode in France is low”. Much later still, the Minister of Labor Muriel Penicaud says March 12 on LCI that it is not dangerous to go to work in companies with more than 1000 employees; finally the Minister of National Education Jean ‑ Michel Blanquer affirms on March 11 on BFMTV that the closing schools is not an option.
The evening of March 12, it will be said the opposite by Emmanuel Macron …
In time 2, the questions became more numerous. If certain facts are proven, certain consequences of the crisis (economic, financial …) are identified, there are still many uncertainties (extent of these consequences, case fatality rate, on the chain of transmission of the epidemic .. .).
Suddenly, crisis communication aims to develop rational messages. This is the time when public opinion and social networks influence public decisions and exert strong pressure to obtain information immediately.
The possible absence of responses from leaders is quickly perceived as an attempt to hide something or as an inability to manage the situation. And even if the public intervention of the government by one of its ministers is always a difficult or even dangerous exercise, as we have just demonstrated, communication is essential, expected and analyzed and scrutinized.
Therefore, the rational messages on barrier gestures and the precautionary measures contained in stage 2 of the Orsan plan and his care organization system triggered on February 20, are widely distributed by video spots, in businesses. Everything is systematically explained in the multiple interviews given by the brand new Minister of Solidarity and Health, Olivier Veran.
Everything except Lubrizol
Emmanuel Macron’s communication of March 12 therefore aimed to reaffirm the legitimacy of the executive in the face of this crisis. The challenge for the Head of State was on the one hand to position himself as a driving force at the level of decisions and actions taken in Europe and on the other hand to establish (or restore, after communication failure during the fire at the Lubrizol factory in Rouen on September 26, 2019) trust with the population and the actors involved in the management of this crisis.
Communicating with the population and the experts is essential from this point of view. The executive is trying to learn from its past experiences.
In the case of the yellow vests crisis, the speeches were perceived by the population as condescending.
In the case of Lubrizol, the messages wanted to be reassuring, but had a paternalistic tone devoid of empathy. Instead of avoiding panic after the fire, they only amplified it. Especially since the messages of the government spokespersons were very often in total contradiction with those of the experts, contributing strongly to the feeling of distrust towards the executive as for its capacity to manage the crisis.
The Resurrection of the Responsible Citizen
The speech by Emmanuel Macron and the intervention by Edouard Philippe were therefore relatively correct – even if too late – and rather in opposition to the previous crises: empathy, compassion, understanding and also empowerment of citizens, actors of crisis management at their level.
Thus, the barrier gestures which seemed a bit derisory (avoiding handshakes …), are nevertheless quite well established, the companies have resolved to put in place all the provisions for the organization of telework. And, finally, on Saturday March 14, despite the maintained elections, Edouard Philippe announced the closure of bars, nightclubs, restaurants …
This major crisis has gradually put the executive under the wall; the speeches of Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe ended up placing fundamental elements of communication and policy on the front of the stage: the general interest, the interest of each one, the protection of all.
Whatever the critics, the executive has rather managed to gain its share of legitimacy with regard to what we call “crisis management” by trying to gain the support of the greatest number.
The strategic role and shield of the scientific and medical bodies
Here again, speaking out must be structured around health professionals; either by letting them express themselves or by echoing their expertise.
Consistency with expert messages participates in benevolence and empathy and gives the feeling that the government’s management of the crisis is effectively coordinated with professionals.
The objective is certainly not to aggravate the problems which the hospital system has known for more than a year, but above all to allow it to face the pandemic in the best conditions. This is another way of highlighting the quality of the health sector in France, trusting the quality of care provided to the population.
The announcement of measures for businesses, the economy, towards the most vulnerable populations, and the announcement of a national and European recovery plan have therefore come to give a new dimension to executive communication. .
But the unknowns that remain and the criticisms of the slow implementation of the measures suggest that the health consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are not over; and that the political crisis will soon follow in the light of the emerging controversy over the maintenance of the municipal election.
All this shows the importance of anticipation, which in this crisis takes on its full meaning; an anticipation that was lacking here overall. In any case, after the management of the crisis will come the time of post-crisis management.