“Churchillian.” That’s a word being used to describe the St. Patrick’s Day Ministerial Broadcast – what Americans would call an address to the nation – by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Leo Varadkar on the coronavirus. “This is the calm before the storm – before the surge,” he told Ireland’s people.
The speech is worth reading and watching for its plain-language estimate of the oncoming medical crisis, its rhetorical structure, its messaging to adults and children both, and its call to endure now to prevent tragedy later.
Varadkar praised teachers, army cadets, librarians, civil servants, child care workers, “the people who are stocking our shelves every day,” “journalists and broadcasters who are helping to inform and educate,” and Ireland’s “hauliers” (truckers) who bring the “products, medicine, and equipment we all need.” Saluting health care workers who will bear the brunt of the crisis, he said “Not all superheroes wear capes, some wear scrubs and gowns.”
And there were these comments:
We need to halt the spread of the virus but we also need to halt the spread of fear.
So please rely only on information from trusted sources. From Government, from the [Health Service Executive], from the World Health Organization and from the national media.
Do not forward or share messages that are from other, unreliable sources. So much harm has already been caused by those messages, and we must insulate our communities and the most vulnerable from the contagion of fear. Fear is a virus in itself.
Please take regular breaks from watching news and media, and from consuming social media. Constantly scrolling on your phone or obsessively following the latest developments is not good for anyone.
Look after your mental health and well-being as well as your physical health.
This advice seems as good for Americans as it is for the Irish, but I paused over Varadkar’s mention of “trusted sources.” Are the parallel government bodies – executive, medical — in the United States “trusted”? It’s a plain fact that many Americans distrust the administration. Other Americans distrust the “mainstream media.” Does the sum of these distrusts make Americans vulnerable to social media disinformation and misinformation, especially from nations that have long aimed to decrease trust in American institutions and democracy?
As I was thinking things over, the “Lunchtime Politics” compilation of polls by Ron Faucheux, Chief Analyst for Certus Insights, landed in my inbox. The topic was coronavirus. Citing an Axios/Ipsos survey conducted as recently as March 13-16, he noted that among adults nationwide;
- 48 percent “definitely” or “probably” believe “The U.S. is concealing the true scale of its coronavirus deaths.” Zogby reported “62% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true.”
- 47 percent believe “The coronavirus is a man-made epidemic” — 45% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true.
- 41 percent believe “The threat of the coronavirus is being exaggerated for political reasons” — 29% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true.
- 31 percent believe the coronavirus is a “Fraud perpetrated by the deep state” — 22% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true.
- 27 percent believe it is a “Foreign plot to attack the world” (24% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true).
- 13 percent say “The coronavirus is a hoax” — 15% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans say this is definitely/probably true.
These survey indicators are distressing, giving more testimony about the fissures and seams in American society. It would be too simple to say these divisions among Americans – by class, region, income, religion, level of education, party, and social group – began during the Presidential contest of 2016, for they have increasingly colored each election in this century. It does mean that the executive and legislative branches must consciously – indeed, resolutely — begin to heal them.
All this confirms the insights of the celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow, who served in President Kennedy’s administration as the Director of the U.S. Information Agency. For journalists, for public affairs and Public Diplomacy practitioners, and for the U.S. government’s international broadcasters, Murrow’s principle was the same: “To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful.”
Bottom line: the U.S. national response to the pandemic must not only be medical and economic. It will also require a surge of truthful communication and messaging – resolutely nonpartisan, abjuring the ad hominem in favor of cooperation, and building trust — as well. (This will, for sure, be difficult as candidates position themselves for the fall election.) It must be a partnership of federal, state, and local organizations and – as Prime Minister Varadkar said – journalists and broadcasters. For all those communicating about coronavirus, the watchword must be “credibility.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.