The tightrope faced by our leaders

No-one needs reminding that 2020 has been grim, but imagine being a leader who has to make decisions affecting thousands or millions of people day after day.

They then have to translate those decisions into action, and communicate to the public what they’re trying to achieve.

Keeping people on board for a prolonged period isn’t easy.

We’ve all probably gone through a swirl of emotions since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March – fear, worry, sadness, isolation, frustration and fatigue to name a few.

That’s not to say optimism, togetherness and laughter have been swept away.

In the UK, devolved leaders have carved something of a niche during the last six months.

Public health leaders have become household names, while council leaders are on the television and in print more than usual.

In the private sector chief executives like Mike Coupe – until recently of Sainsbury’s  – emailed customers during lockdown about how key workers and the vulnerable would be prioritised, and reassured shoppers about the availability of food.

Here, Dr Sian Rees, associate professor in public relations at Swansea University, answers questions from the Local Democracy Reporter Service about leadership, trust and communication.

Question:  Can you think of a harder dilemma for a leader than the coronavirus pandemic?

Answer:  This is an extraordinary situation which we haven’t seen really for over 100 years.

It’s a really difficult time for leaders. I don’t think we should underestimate the challenge.

That does not mean you should have to excuse those who you might not agree with.

Question:  How do you keep the public on side?

Answer:  It’s a really difficult issue to earn public consent, and then maintain it. Our democracy and our systems in the UK are based on consent.

Now we are relying on leaders to make daily, if not hourly decisions on our behalf. It’s really difficult to maintain that faith, that belief and that consent.

In March it was such a shocking situation. What drove people to get behind Governments was fear, really.

The emotional side of messaging is incredibly important. It’s also important to use a scientific and intelligence approach.

At the beginning of the pandemic Governments tried really hard to do that – bringing in experts to bring credibility and to almost frame that particular decision-making.

Things have become less clear over time. There is a danger you can begin to lose that trust when people get confused.

In recent weeks, complicated messaging has been coming out from Governments and regional leaders which people find hard to keep up with.

I think there needs to be more consensus from the four Governments (UK, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

Question:  Do people prefer messages to come from public health experts?

Answer:  No doubt about that. I’m highly complimentary of all four Governments – I think there has been a really good use of experts and different people.

As a nation we are far more likely to trust these professionals than our politicians.

Politicians are trying to do two things simultaneously: look after us, but always with an eye on their or their party’s futures.

There’s more use of experts coming back again, and I think that’s the right thing to do.

Question:  Do you think the devolved leaders have fared better than the Prime Minister?

Answer:  I do, particularly here in Wales and in Scotland. I think what the devolved nations have managed to do is offer that balance of emotion and intelligence behind their messaging.

We are quite emotional beings, particularly around our health and those we love, and that gets in the way of and overpowers intelligence and reasoning.

Devolved leaders have been really good at sharing their humanness, and come across as people we can relate to.

I think Boris Johnson can fail to make that connection, particular here in Wales – he can represent a privileged, Westminster-based Government.



New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and (right) Swansea University’s Dr Sian Rees

Question:  Does trust in leaders, and ratings, say more about a particular country or the leader themselves?

Answer:  A country’s systems and democratic processes are partly what underpins trust in leaders. The media also plays a part.

The size of a country and its social situations also create a different relationship with the electorate.

We are a small nation – we feel they (leaders) know us a bit better here.

It’s interesting to look internationally. I think New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is a really good user of communications. She gets a really clever balance of the intellectual message.

Question:  What makes a good leader?

Answer:  I think strong leaders in any organisation base their vision on really good market intelligence and data.

They understand the situation they’re dealing with really well. It comes from having good people around you and being prepared to listen to them.

They also have a strong vision of where they need to get to. They need to articulate that into an action plan, work with all the people who are needed to put it in place, and also be able to communicate it clearly to the public.

Question:  Is optimism better than realism for a leader?

Answer:  The morale of an electorate, or workforce, is an incredibly important aspect when you’re trying to deliver something important.

People have to feel positivity that if we do the things leaders want us to do then we will get the outcome we want. But it’s really important not to be over-optimistic.

Some of the good messaging, I think, is about doing things for the sake of others, like the NHS.

It could be about saving granny, or you need to do this for the vulnerable. I think we need something like that for this winter.

Question:  How can leaders deal with public fatigue?

Answer:  Even in normal times, we wear out messaging quite quickly, even we like that message. Everybody experiences that with adverts that they liked at first.

That’s why it’s important to have new campaigns. We are fatigued. I think we need a new Covid campaign for the winter.

WalesOnline – Swansea