Tag Archives: Queen Elizabeth

What The COVID-19 Pandemic Really Needs – A Communicator

17 May

     Yes, the world needs a vaccine.  But until scientists create one, we need communicators too.  

      In times of crisis, leadership of course matters.  But so do words.  In a fast moving multi-channel, multi-platform world where communication networks are no longer linear and centralized, finding authentic voices to coalesce around a unifying message has never been more difficult or important.   Our elected leaders command a bully pulpit that gives them not just great opportunities to lead with their words, but equally great responsibility.  It’s one thing to hold daily news conferences, it’s quite another to persuade, inspire, and drive attitudes.

       Ultimately, historians will judge whether our leaders such as President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and many of our state governors have risen to this high mantel.  But one leading epidemiologist believes that on a national level, no one has—yet.  Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota along with three other academic colleagues recently released a paper projecting three scenarios for the progression of the COVID-19 virus.  The scenario that they believe government and healthcare leaders need to prepare for is a second, more powerful wave of the virus to emerge in the fall.  And Osterholm believes there is a national vacuum of urgency.

       “Generally, I think our leaders at the state level are doing an incredible job, as have most of the governors across the country,” said Osterholm when I spoke with him.

       But on a national level, Osterholm is looking for a voice from the past to come forward to the future.  “What I’m looking for is an FDR for a fire side chat.  Or, a Winston Churchill. There are going to be some really tough days ahead, and we need to be brining people together instead of splitting them apart.”

 

       In one important aspect, part of Osterholm’s wish is granted, although not in America.  It’s a voice that represents the past and the present—Queen Elizabeth II.  In her April 5th speech to the United Kingdom, the queen represented the pinnacle of Aristotelian persuasion.  She embodied ethos, or credible and ethical appeal.  The queen in her own properly stoic English way projects pathos, or emotional appeal based upon her experience in the Royal Family during some of Britain’s darkest hours.  And finally, she exhibited logos, or logical appeal to reinforce her message of resilience.   She did it all in just four and a half minutes.

       The queen proves long held communication theory that the messenger enhances the message.  This is precisely what Aristotle meant by his term ethos.  Yale psychologist Carl Hovland called it a source effect.  Hovland and his academic colleagues led research in the 1950’s that would become known as the Yale Studies of persuasion.  They determined that the source effect—or messenger—be it a celebrity, expert, or person of authority was among the four essential effects for a cognitive learning process that led to changing attitudes.  In the queen’s case, one could argue she is a celebrity, expert, and authority figure wrapped in one.  And because she is a beloved figure with an 81% approval rating in the U.K., her message is looked upon with more reverence and credibility than perhaps a similar message from a polarizing figure such as President Trump who struggles to maintain at best a 50% approval rating.

     But part of what makes the queen’s address so powerful is what Hovland would call the message effect.   Her words are deliberate in how they warn of darker times to come, yet reassuring that as a country Britain is up to the fight like so many it has faced in the past.   She also steals rhetorical tricks from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Lennon.  Her use of polyptonton—repeated words—and periodic sentence structure cements the message in the mind.

 “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

                The repeated words, ‘we will,’ and ‘again’ are a rallying cry.  They stick to the brain.  She stole it from Churchill who so strongly used his own polyptonton in 1940:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

       To this day many believe Churchill was talking about the allied invasion of Europe.  In reality, he was talking about a German invasion of Britain.  Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth is rallying the country against the invasion of a virus.  Part of the enormous gravity in both passages is the periodic sentence structure that saves the most powerful verbs until the very end: meet again; never surrender.

       There has also been another voice.  This one comes from the not so distant past—President George W. Bush.

      President Bush’s message is also a call to action.  “We all need to do our part,” said the former president. 

     To be sure, President Bush was a leader who sometimes struggled as an orator.  He often made light of himself as someone who mangled the English language.  But his sincerity and empathy were rarely ever in doubt and that was in full display here, too.

     “Let us remember that empathy and simple compassion are powerful tools in our national recovery,” said Bush.  “We rise and fall together.  And we are determined to rise.”

     This too, Aristotle and Hovland would argue makes the messenger and the message incredibly powerful.

     Dr. Osterholm is right.  We need a national voice.  Not just a voice from the past, we need them from the present. 

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