Anatomy of COVID-19 Communication Leaders

Apr 20, 2020Blog0 comments

Leadership Qualities: Empathy, Openness, Accountability

What makes a good leader during a crisis? A wrong move could destroy trust and cause confusion, which will only make the problem worse. David Robson of the BBC tells us that a good leader will clarify the problem and unite the population, create trust, be open and avoid any desires to sugar coat. Treat the public as adults. If you don’t, they’ll sense deception, which diminishes credibility and trust for any polices a leader wants to implement.

Some of the best methods to create thought leadership can be found here.

Among McKinsey’s ways to manage a crisis are being able to show empathyand being able to communicate openly. In Forbes we read about the need for accountability. It appears from all assessments that basically what we want in times of crisis is honest, factual information and someone to take responsibility.

These leadership qualities–empathy, openness, accountability–are also associated with women’s leadership styles. This could be the big lesson of this crisis: The leadership qualities we need are those associated with the way women lead. This may help explain why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand is currently the gold standard for crisis leadership. And judging by their country’s low mortality rates, we could say the same for PM Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland, and PM Sanna Mirella Marin of Finland.

Besides the exemplary leadership of PM Ardern, this blog will look at the extraordinary job Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has been doing at the epicenter of the crisis, along with Dr. Antohony Fauci, the scientific voice of reason who has been providing the nation with clear advice from the White House. For honorable mentions, we’ll look at Elon Musk who’s kicking his factories into gear to make ventilators, and we’ll hear about MA Governor Baker’s backdoor channel to China and the call he made to Robert Kraft to loan him a plane.

All of these people provide good examples for how to lead in times of crisis. But it would be remiss and disgraceful to leave out the doctors and nurses on the frontlines–they are the heroes of this story–leaders are the coordinators of their efforts, the communicators of their needs, and they are also profoundly important morale boosters for a society that’s overwhelming the medical community–it is the doctors and nurses who are doing the actual fighting in the war against COVID-19. And it is they for whom we reserve the most praise.


PM Jacinda Ardern

In times of crisis the message should have five aims: It must offer a credible explanation of what happened, offer guidance, instil hope, show empathy and convince the public that their leader is in control. If you fail on any one, you lose the public’s confidence.

These days, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is the gold standard for crisis management. As exhibited in her heartfelt reaction to the Christchurch shootings and now her extraordinary performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, her clear and compassionate style, make her one of the best examples of modern day leadership. Her message following the Christchurch shooting showed compassion for the victims and delivered security measures to prevent further tragedy. For this performance she received widespread acclaim across the globe.

In this current crisis, before anyone in New Zealand had died from coronavirus, PM Ardern imposed a lockdown: schools were closed, only essential shops remained opened, and borders were secured. As of the writing of this article, three weeks later, data shows that the prime minister appears to have not only flattened the curve, but could even have eliminated the virus from the country.

“Success or failure in times of crisis,” says Suze Wilson, “hinges on getting people to follow your leadership, even though it demands sudden, unsettling, unprecedented changes to their daily lives.” PM Adern’s March 23 press conference concerning the COVID-19 emergency is considered a perfect example of crisis communication. Her daily televised briefings stress her message, and her regular Facebook live sessions endear and calm the public, who are reacting favorably to her transparent style of decision-making. Following on her promises, the government provided an alert system that gives the people a clear idea of what is going on and the reasons behind her actions. Polls show 80% support for the government’s response.

The lockdown Ardern imposed was severe. Swimming at the beach and hunting were banned. But within 10 days the number of new cases fell. Right from the start, Ardern spoke in simple language: “Stay home. Don’t have contact with anyone outside your household ‘bubble.’ Be kind. We’re all in this together.”

Denmark with 260 recorded deaths as of this article, became one of the first countries to lay out plans for the gradual reopening of shops and businesses. “We’ve managed to avoid the misfortune that has befallen a number of other countries,” Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a press conference on April 6th. “The only reason for that” is that “we acted early.” Iceland’s PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir has recorded 7 deaths, and Finland’s PM Sanna Mirella Marin’s efforts have kept her country’s number of deaths at 49–which means that these numbers need examining to see if there is a correlation between female leadership and pandemic containment.

Governor Andrew Cuomo

In great times of darkness and chaos, great leaders emerge. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has become a source of light and reason during pandemonium. Slow, calm, cool, measured and clear. Articulate, simple, and honest. Flanked by easy read to slides projected onto large screens, Gov Cuomo has been taking New Yorkers and the nation calmly through one of the worst crises we have ever faced. He explains the simple steps to follow and takes pauses along the way. Shows gratitude to the medical community. Sorrow for the afflicted. And always steers clear of politics by keeping the focus solely on defeating the virus.

His morning briefings have been watched by millions. It’s become clear that he is on everyone’s side because he fights so fiercely for the equipment that the medical workers need–the tests and the ventilators and the masks–he is always focused on the doctors and nurses fighting the scourge and the resources they need to stop it. To protect lives. The nation can feel that Gov Cuomo is in charge and they know he’s on it–doing everything he can to fix the problems by explaining clearly what we need to do in order to fix them.

And one of the ways in which he has gained so much trust is that he never over sells his knowledge. He is clear to explain that the situation is a place in which no one has been before and therefore we were all figuring it out together–he tells us that there will be confusion, and there will be some groping, but together we will get through. He’s bringing the nation together by being honest, reliable and relatable. He’s reaching out with his heart when he needs to, providing charts to buttress his points, and fielding all the questions that the press can ask, and by doing so he puts fears and rumors to rest.

Polls currently show that almost 9 out of 10 New Yorkers approve of the governor’s handling of the crisis.

See Governor Cuomo’s coronavirus briefing of Mar 19, 2020 | NBC News (Live Stream Recording)

Dr. Anthony Fauci

When White House briefings get contentious, a little doctor takes the stand. A gnome-like man. He appears kind, he’s gentle, he is soft and the information he shares seems to be true and honest, because he admits to what he knows and to what he doesn’t. He is reliable and factual. And above all non partisan.

In a time when science is vital, when the facts, the steps people need to take in order to remain safe are needed, it’s Anthony Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is rising to the occasion. The nation waits everyday to hear from Dr. Fauci. His pedigree is impeccable. His science sound. His voice is kind. And his projections are always reliable, because he never claims anything for which he does not have evidence. Advice is not based on his feelings. He is a medical doctor there to stop a virus from killing people and no one doubts his credentials or his dedication to that mission. Dr. Fauci has won the approval of 78 percent of Americans while just 7 percent disapproved, a Quinnipiac national survey showed.

See Dr. Fauci address the question of ‘when’ we’ll return to normal | Morning Joe | MSNBC

Sometimes the best leadership comes in the form of action, as opposed to communication:

Elon Musk

Due to a national shortage of ventilators, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that he had bought hundreds of ventilators from China and shipped them to the US. “China had an oversupply, so we bought 1,255 FDA-approved ResMed, Philips & Medtronic ventilators & air shipped them to LA,” Musk tweeted. Musk also said that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York, will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce more ventilators there.

Baker & Kraft

Due to a national shortage of personal protective equipment, Governor Baker of Massachusetts opened up a backdoor channel to China, negotiated the sale of nearly two million masks and then asked Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, to loan him a jet so he could pick them up. The Patriots’ owner responded by saying, Yes! “In today’s world,” Kraft said, “those of us who are fortunate to make a difference have a significant responsibility to do so with all the assets we have available to us.”

The biggest problem they faced was getting the legal right to land the plane. Gov Baker, the U.S. The State Department, Mr. Kraft and others sent letters to China’s consul general requesting special permits, waivers to allow a “humanitarian mission” and they promised no member of the crew would leave the aircraft.

Kraft paid $2 million, or half the cost of the goods, and the order of 1.7 million N95 masks arrived. “What we needed,” said Jim Nolan, who spearheaded the logistics as the COO of Kraft Sports and Entertainment, “were boots on the ground to gather the goods and get them to the right place.”


On April 7, United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued an urgent appeal for action, calling on politicians to “forget political games” and come together for a “strong and effective response.” “The world is facing an unprecedented test. And this is the moment of truth,” he said.

It’s also been said that it is the times which make leaders and not the other way around–to say that someone rises to the occasion means they do what is necessary to successfully overcome a difficult situation… PM Ardern, Gov Cuomo, Dr. Fauci… are leading in times of crisis, providing security and comfort, clear instructions and empathy. Musk, Baker and Kraft show a different kind of crisis leadership, where it’s not so much the rhetoric as it is the action which leads the way through the crisis. But together they work hand in hand. We need leaders who can unite us to do our parts to help those on the frontlines, and together we’ll defeat the virus.

In times of crisis, new leaders will emerge from unforseen corners of society. Their capacity for  honesty, clarity, and innate ability to show  understanding, compels many to listen. They instill a hope that unites with compassionate phrases such as, we will get through, even though we’re stumbling at times because we don’t know where we are… but if we stay together, we’ll learn, adapt, get through the crisis… and rise.


CODA: As of the final draft of this article, NPR and The Boston Globe have reported that: many of the masks brought to the U.S. by the Patriots plane were not the industry-standard. Hospitals in Boston and beyond decline to use and remain reluctant about them; and the devices Elon Musk gave away aren’t powerful enough to use in the ICU–health officials have warned against using them because they could spread the virus further.


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