Monday

6th Apr 2020

Opinion

Coronavirus forces Merkel's biggest crisis campaign yet

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel addressing the German nation on Wednesday night (18 March) (Photo: Screengrab/Kanzleramt)

She did what she had to do.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just started nothing less than the biggest crisis communication campaign of her career, dwarfing the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) crisis of Helmut Kohl's black party donations in the 1990s, the costly euro crisis and even the migration crisis, which is still ongoing but reduced to background noise amid the coronavirus.

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With infection rates multiplying tenfold every 10 days, the situation in Germany is getting more dire. No politician wants to be responsible for the largest death toll in the history of modern Germany or the EU.

The fear of the German situation soon resembling that in Italy forced Merkel to do what she has not done a single time in more than 14 years as German chancellor outside of her annual New Year address: she made a televised speech.

As common as this communication format is in some countries, Germans know only a faint variant of it, the New Year Speech. This one was quite different.

Merkel's late involvement in communicating about the virus may be symptomatic of her style of government. Her final tenure as German chancellor in particular is marked by public absence, leaving politics and policies to others.

It was not until one week ago, 11 March, that she entered the scene with a press conference, formally justified by briefing the public about the European Council's video conference on the coronavirus.

Her stipulation that up to 70 percent of the population could in the end catch the virus was her first attempt to raise the public relevance of the issue.

Desperation must have grown during the seven days that passed since then, as the number of infections grew from 1,567 to 10,999 cases and rising.

Now her communication shifted dramatically from public awareness raising to a direct call to action, passing much of the responsibility for solving the crisis to the individual citizen: "I firmly believe that we will accomplish this task, if really all citizens view it as their task. [...] This is serious. Take it seriously."

The lockdown in Germany, like in many other EU countries, is unprecedented.

Merkel acknowledges that in her TV address and describes the situation as the biggest challenge for Germany since its restart after World War Two.

She recognises the hardships that citizens are facing with these new restrictions and thanks the hardworking doctors, nurses, employees in shops - combined with a bold promise that food supplies will always be ensured.

Distancing means caring

Her dramatic speech educates citizens on the importance of social distancing, noting that "only distancing means caring."

She does this in her trademark commonplace style with direct appeals, including "nobody can be spared", "everybody counts, it's now on us" or the good old German reflex to "abide by the rules".

In the end, the appeals seem so ample that one wonders if her communication team could not decide which line to take and simply added them all.

As always in crisis communication, playing the catch-up game is the hardest up-hill battle.

Merkel's appeal to "believe only official communication" arguably is a desperate attempt to regain the public high ground, which is not only threatened by Russian attempts to destabilise Europe's democracies through the spread of coronavirus fake news.

Most of all, the government now has a credibility challenge because of its own past attempts to avoid panic.

Renowned experts like professor Alexander Kekulé have long criticised the government for its initially euphemistic comparisons of the coronavirus with the flu.

Now the government is using its strongest communicator, the still highly trusted chancellor, in order to pass the buck partially to the people.

Merkel conveys the image of using all instruments at her disposal.

And if that won't do the trick, the blame will at least to some extent go to people's disobedience. One could call this mere defence tactics. But to her credit, all medical experts agree with the message's content.

People quickly need to change their behaviour and a small dose of panicking might just be what is needed to bring that change.

In passing, Merkel announces that the government is considering further measures, a clear hint at curfews.

With an unusual personal touch, she reminds her fellow citizens of her communist East German biography and that curtailing democratic freedoms, which people fought for long and hard, is not what she wants.

But her message is clear: abide or else.

There is no blueprint for this crisis and in view of the rise of populism, Germany may be lucky to have an experienced leader who can actually read and understand scientific briefings.

History will tell if the measures in the country and Merkel's accompanying campaign will achieve their goals.

Author bio

Michael Kambeck is partner and Germany director with the lobbyists Boldt Partners.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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