Tuesday, 3 Oct 2023

Opinion | Boris Johnson Needs to Learn From Andrew Cuomo

Britain’s prime minister needs a new communication strategy — and fast.

By Alastair Campbell

Mr. Campbell was an adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

LONDON — Now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has become the first head of government to test positive for coronavirus, he will have to change the way he operates as he seeks to lead his country through the crisis. Other leaders — it is inevitable he will not be the last to have to self-isolate and “work from home” — will be interested to see how he adapts to what will be a very strange working environment for someone used to a steady flow of meetings, able to summon advisers into his presence at will.

However, it is also a good opportunity to take stock of his crisis management style, including the way he communicates to the public. Mr. Johnson has shown in his rise that he can be a very effective communicator. But the style — deliberately bumbling and disheveled; fond of jokes; disregarding facts and details in favor of bluster — does not lend itself to a crisis as grave as this.

As someone who has known Mr. Johnson for several decades, and never hidden my view that he is not fit to be prime minister, I do not imagine he will listen to any advice I give.

But I am nonetheless offering it, that he should use his isolation to develop a new way of communicating: more fact, more detail; less rhetoric, less bluster; cut the homilies and rambles; fewer snappy one-liners; more empathy for the dead and dying, and those caring for them; more explanation of decision making; more linking of new policy announcements to previous ones, and to data; use of graphics and film to explain; and, please, comb your hair! This is not a trivial point. In times of crisis, people look to leaders for confidence and strength. If you look disorganized, people fear that you are disorganized.

The role of a leader in a crisis is to devise and execute but also narrate the strategy. It is to take the public into your confidence about why you are making the decisions you are making. Mr. Johnson has long wished to be seen as a modern-day version of Winston Churchill. But at the moment, I suggest the prime minister should look for inspiration on the other side of the Atlantic, not to the American president, but to Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

Mr. Cuomo’s father and predecessor, Mario, is credited with one of the most famous quotation about politics ever made: “We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.” His son’s briefings are a master class in prose.

First, tone and mood. Mr. Cuomo does not hide how serious things are — far from it — but he is calm, composed, polite and authoritative throughout.

Second, hard fact, and detail. The TV screen is split, on one side his face, on the other a presentation that he is clicking through, setting out with simple clear graphics the many facts of the crisis: Deaths. Cases. Testing. Capacity of the health system. Masks. Ventilators. Mr. Cuomo gives detailed area-by-area breakdowns of figures, points out trends, tries to explain them.

Third, empathy. He intersperses the factual presentation with regular sincere thanks to groups and individuals, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who serves on the White House coronavirus task force who has become known the world over for his pained facial expressions as he stands behind President Trump at briefings.

Fourth, thinking ahead. Mr. Cuomo was the first leader I saw openly to put concerns about mental health at the heart of his strategy, and he announced the plan for a network of online psychologists and psychiatrists to help New Yorkers. He showed empathy and humor, spelling out how lonely many people were already, even before mandated self-isolation. It was hard, he said, for families forced to spend day and night together, and noted that as for himself, “I’m even getting annoyed with the dog.”

Fifth, inspiration. This is vital in a leader — it is inspiring to watch Mr. Cuomo. You feel part of his narrative. You feel the hurdles are enormous, but confident they can be overcome, as with his reminders that society will continue to function, the world will still be here once the crisis is done. I have felt none of that sense of a shared voyage when watching Mr. Trump or Mr. Johnson.

Sixth, just the right amount of poetry amid the prose. Twenty-five minutes or so of hard fact and prosaic explanation, then a little bit of poetry for the end — about the acts of kindness and compassion by which we will be judged; about how life will go on, but things will be different; about how the crisis, as well as being a challenge to all of us, leaders and citizens alike, is also an opportunity to show what kind of people we were.

Mr. Johnson still has time to improve his communications. I know he is busy. I know he is facing enormous responsibility and making huge decisions that affect all of our lives, and now doing so in new and difficult circumstances of self-isolation. But I really do recommend that he take half an hour to watch a Cuomo briefing, and five minutes to watch a Trump one, with the president’s racism, petulance and narcissism on naked display. Then, when planning his own, and when he is out there in front of the country, all alone down the line from 10 Downing Street, Mr. Johnson should try to operate by this mantra: “More like Cuomo, less like Trump.”

Alastair Campbell, an author and consultant strategist, was chief spokesman for and strategist to Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1994 to 2003.

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