In proportion to the increase in the number of corona infections, the frequency with which government leaders give press conferences is increasing. A day after Mark Rutte announced the ‘partial lockdown’ in the Netherlands, his German colleague Angela Merkel, after a long meeting with the leaders of the federal states, expressed her concerns: ‘If you ask me what it is that worries me, then it is exponential growth. And we have to stop them, otherwise it will not end well. ‘
A virus does not disappear through words, but a well-chosen communication strategy can increase support for drastic measures. Watched with two experts de Volkskant to the differences in corona communication between neighboring countries. The number of new infections was almost the same there on Friday – although the German population is five times that of the Netherlands.
‘If you compare worldwide, the similarities between Rutte and Merkel are much greater than the differences,’ says Paul ‘t Hart. The professor of governance and organization sees two politicians who rely more on their experience and intelligence than their charisma. An advantage for Merkel is her serious appearance, her ‘gravitas’ as’ t Hart calls it, which in this specific case is reinforced by her scientific background. ‘In these circumstances, Rutte’s energetic cheerfulness begins to feel like an illusion of control.’
Looking at the content of their corona speeches, Daniëlle Timmermans, professor of risk communication at UMC Amsterdam, notices that Merkel’s from the start of the pandemic showed more ‘awareness of the danger’.
Purpose and measures
Of the fifteen minutes that Mark Rutte spoke last week, he spent almost ten minutes announcing and explaining the new measures. “He does that in great detail, and it is all in his head, while Merkel often has to look at her sheet in that part,” says’ t Hart.
In press conferences, Merkel seldom deals with concrete measures for long, Timmermans sees that they explicitly play the role of means that are needed to achieve a goal. That goal is to keep the number of infections manageable in such a way that source and contact investigation is possible, and to prevent a new lockdown. Merkel also constantly emphasizes that action is needed to achieve these goals, action by the state and its citizens together.
With the imperturbability of a seasoned teacher who knows that first graders only understand the curriculum at the umpteenth explanation, Merkel keeps repeating why the measures are necessary. Her words may or may not be addressed to specific population groups, such as persistently partying youngsters. “Please also think about what is important to you, isn’t that also the health of your family?”
The fact that Merkel can ‘limit’ himself to the broad outlines is because the federal states and cities in Germany are primarily responsible for developing, promulgating and explaining the concrete measures. Incidentally, this division of roles only works if the federal states more or less agree with each other. At the moment, they are fighting each other over how strict the new measures should be exactly, which threatens to endanger support for the corona politics.
Health and economy
Dutch ministers have often juxtaposed health and economy in recent months. Merkel consistently does the exact opposite. In her message to the German youth, on October 9, she asks whether they do not think it is important that they have ‘work in the coming years’ or a place of training, ‘things that depend on a strong economy’. Then, rhetorically, “Isn’t that worth a little patience?” Health and economy merge in Merkel’s press conferences under the broader heading of social interest.
Rutte’s big ‘hammer’ builds on a tradition of gross verbal artillery – French President Macron spoke of a war against the virus in the spring. Merkel’s press conferences are metaphorless, except for the inevitable word ‘wave’ in international pandemic jargon. In her words, says Timmermans, virus control is “a matter of sustained effort and alertness, not an enemy that can be defeated and then it is done.”
Personal and business
Mark Rutte started his press conference this week with a personal anecdote about how the virus has now also crept into his circle of acquaintances, but he has not yet shown any emotions in his press conferences. According to Paul ‘t Hart, they can be effective in a situation like this. He refers to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whom he considers the best communicating government leader in this crisis. ‘In press conferences she is a state woman, in her Facebook videos with baby on her lap she makes people feel like a neighbor. That combination is successful. ‘
Angela Merkel does not have a pleasant neighbor image either, but in fifteen years as a chancellor she has learned how great the effect is if she reveals a sparse soul stir at a tactical moment. In September, for example, during the general political reflections in the Bundestag, she repeated aloud the question that a journalist had previously put to her: the question of what disturbed her, ‘the man Angela Merkel’, about this time most and what disturbed her most. missed. Her answer: “Spontaneous encounters, spontaneity in general.”
To then make it even more clear that a return to ‘normalcy’ can only be achieved through joint effort. And voilà, a few hours later the German wrote to the German media about ‘an emotional appeal from the Federal Chancellor’.