Snowball effect: crisis management efforts roll inevitably into blame

Extreme weather gives politicians a chance to show leadership. But meltdown may occur

Former US president  George Bush: his observation of a flooded New Orleans through an airplane window marked the public’s perception of him. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Former US president George Bush: his observation of a flooded New Orleans through an airplane window marked the public’s perception of him. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Politicians are instinctively drawn to drama and crisis. When the chance arises to appear as leaders of the country in its hour of peril they find it irresistible.

At every disaster or emergency press conference, a little bit of the politician is secretly comparing himself to Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

But it’s a risky business. The evidence of similar recent crises suggests that people will not give the politicians much credit if things go right; but they will certainly blame them when things go wrong.

Take Hurricane Ophelia. The country was shut down for two days as the storm hit. The Government followed the same playbook as it is currently following – assemble the experts and the leaders of public and emergency services; make sure they have the best and most up-to-date information; make sure they are talking to one another. If the politicians want to front a few press conferences, that’s fair enough; but it is secondary to the real work of ensuring public safety.

Perhaps the Government was overcautious; perhaps not. But it could fairly claim afterwards to have managed the event with efficiency and purpose.

But it made little or no impact on politics or on the public perception of the Government.

In reasonably well-run western countries, there are things that the public expects governments to be able to do competently; managing extreme weather seems to be one of them.

Bush over New Orleans

Where the public do notice, however, is when the politicians fail at leading through such events. George W Bush’s contemplation of a flooded New Orleans through an airplane window marked the public’s perception of him from then on.

More prosaically, the former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey – who spent half a lifetime in politics and was one of the most thoughtful, reform-minded politicians of his generation – will be forever remembered for being on holidays in Malta during the last big freeze, in early 2010. Dempsey’s absence, as local authorities ran out of salt to grit the roads, made no difference in itself. But it became a symbol of a government that people believed was both incompetent and out of touch.

In the same way, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s safety warnings and Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy’s weather forecasts don’t achieve anything in themselves. But the Government hopes that they demonstrate the administration is on the job, is in control. That it isn’t in Malta, either literally or metaphorically.

Uniform of authority

European studies on crisis management and communication tend to suggest that the public wants to hear from experts and scientists, and from the people really involved in the business of protecting the public. At Thursday’s briefing at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre, the Taoiseach made his statement flanked by two uniforms, a senior garda and an Army officer in combat fatigues.

The Taoiseach is especially conscious of the need to appear as the leader of the country.

He became leader of his party and Taoiseach partly because to many voters he appeared different to regular politicians, almost not a politician at all. But that position is inevitably finite.

The perception of him will evolve. It does with all leaders. He wants to manage that. Hence the need to project himself as leader of the nation. The current weather is a good opportunity for that.

But the danger for politicians fronting crisis management is that they end up being perceived not as Churchill, but as Dempsey.

Ministers profess themselves alive to this danger. One Minister agrees there may be little credit to be had, but there will be plenty of blame if they get it wrong: “That’s always how it works, though.”

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