Showing emotion no longer taboo for political leaders during pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through almost every corner of the globe, political leaders and public figures are showing something unusual: visible emotion.

As general thinking goes in public relations strategy, authenticity is king. And experts in that field believe being honest and real about the new reality the world is facing will go a lot further in making sure authorities' messaging lands in an effective way.

“It’s really important that the leader matches the moment,” Laura Babcock, the president of Powergroup Communications, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview from Hamilton. “It’s really important for leaders to connect with people like they haven’t before in the past … share past experiences and show vulnerability.”

There are many examples of leaders doing just that during the coronavirus pandemic, even as it has killed hunndreds of thousands of people worldwide.

In British Columbia, the province’s lead health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, fought back tears as she delivered a televised coronavirus briefing shortly after B.C. recorded Canada’s first virus-related death on March 8.

On April 4, CNN anchor Erin Burnett was brought to tears on air while she conducted an interview with the widow of a 42-year-old man who died of COVID-19.

During a press briefing, Ontario Premier Doug Ford became visibly choked up while talking about his mother-in-law testing positive for the coronavirus.

A similar situation unfolded for Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister on April 16, while speaking to reporters during a virus briefing. Pallister became emotional after reflecting on personal memories of his father and aunt being impacted by polio during the 1930s.

PERSONAL CONNECTION IN TIMES OF CRISIS

Showing real emotion and vulnerability helps the average person relate to how a leader communicates and connects with citizens during a crisis, Babcock says. In other words, any way a leader can show they are human bodes well for their public image.

Babcock cites U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of his own brush with COVID-19 as a prime example. Even though the British government was initially criticized for being too slow in managing its response to the pandemic, Babcock highlighted Johnson speaking candidly about what it was like to be hospitalized and to recover from the coronavirus as providing an authentic human element.

According to an analysis by Forbes, most democratic leaders have experienced a notable surge in approval ratings since the pandemic began in mid-March, as people everywhere tune in to their daily briefings.

Alternatively, Babcock said leaders not showing enough empathy or emotion while they communicate during a crisis can be detrimental or have a negative effect. Much of the work for a leader involves clearly relaying information, as well as a sense of hope, both of which U.S. President Donald Trump has been panned for not providing.

“It’s essential to show empathy, because people are afraid,” Babcock said. “If there’s a lack of recognition, people feel like there might be a disconnect between what’s going on and the tone of their leader. I think Trump is tone-deaf to what the American public is going through,” she added.

SHOWING EMOTION MORE ACCEPTED NOW

Publicly crying or showing any form of emotion has long been perceived a sign of weakness or loss of control, especially in men. The biology of crying and how it manifests in men and women has been widely studied for decades.

Research from the American Psychological Association published in 2014 found that several factors came into play in determining the psychology of crying, including gender and cultural norms.

Babcock believes the pandemic is offering everyone, including political figures, an opportunity to lean into their emotions and show a raw side of themselves.

As Babcock points out, instances such as when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to run back in to his Rideau Cottage home to grab a jacket before delivering a daily press briefing, or when he pulled back his grown-out hairdo while taking questions from reporters, are simple but meaningful reminders that our leaders are human, too.

“As much as this has been a horrible experience, I think it will also level things out a bit more. We might become better at accepting our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, and our differences,” Babcock said. “And maybe, this could be a reset.”

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