Opinion - Power Players

Hate him or love him—New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo can teach us a lot about how to speak during a pandemic

Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center during the Coronavirus pandemic on March 30, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai | Getty Images

One of the classic British posters from World War II is severe, almost brutal. It shows an unsmiling Winston Churchill raising his right hand to jab a finger at the viewer, with the words "DESERVE VICTORY!" in bold.

No promises, only a demand. In ordinary times, that poster might be the antithesis of good politics. But Churchill understood that he was not leading in ordinary times.

So does New York's Andrew Cuomo.

As the third-term governor of a state now hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, and who was once widely perceived to be wearing out his welcome, Cuomo's political star could easily be plunging. But the opposite is happening, thanks to his textbook demonstration of how leaders should speak in a time of crisis.

Contrary to popular belief (and many Hollywood movies) both research and history show that disasters almost never cause panic and communities do not fall apart. Instead, people become more caring and generous. They feel part of something bigger than themselves. They want to help.

Leaders can — and should — put that spirit to work. But doing so requires more than speeches stuffed with "we shall not surrender" rhetoric. In fact, as Cuomo has demonstrated, it doesn't require florid language at all.

At his daily press conferences, Cuomo mostly delivers plain, unvarnished facts (lots of them). Using simple and accessible language, he makes clear what is known, what is not known, and what is uncertain about the pandemic. He is consistent. Sometimes information changes; when it does, he says so and explains why.

Cuomo's communication style shows people that their ship has a captain in command. That's reassuring. More importantly, his forthrightness with facts shows he is being transparent, which earns him public trust.

In a crisis, leaders sometimes withhold information in the mistaken belief that people will react badly, even panic, if they're given bad news. But leaders who aren't forthcoming implicitly say to people, "I don't trust you with this information." And when leaders don't trust people, people don't trust leaders.

Churchill earned Britain's trust with his frank acknowledgement, after the fall of France, that the situation had gone from bad to catastrophic. "We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering," he said, adding that what lay ahead would be "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

Cuomo is never going to rival Churchill's rhetorical skills. But when he discussed New York's "on pause" order, at a time when many were still seeing it more as a brief staycation than a hardship, he said it was going to be tough — and long:  "This is not a short-term situation. This is not a long weekend. This is not a week."

And he communicated something else significant: "These actions will cause disruption. They will cause businesses to close. They will cause employees to stay at home. I understand that," he said. "I take full responsibility. If someone is unhappy, blame me." Shouldering responsibility isn't merely honorable. It demonstrates you're in charge and confident of your decisions.

What Cuomo does not discuss is just as important as what he does. Political parties, calculations and approval ratings are out. Cuomo doesn't talk about his own self-interest or himself — with the important exception of stories about his family and life in New York.

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"Everyone is subject to this virus," he said last week. "I don't care how famous, how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are. I don't care how young, how old. This virus is the great equalizer. My brother Chris is positive for coronavirus. I found out this morning."  He then went on a long digression about growing up with his brother.

Colorful stories about Cuomo's personal life are a hallmark of his style. And since he is always careful about connecting them to the issues people care about and struggle with, they don't come across as self-absorbed.

As a result, they not only humanize the governor (an old politician's tack), they also relate his ordinariness and emphasize that he and his family are part of the community he leads. Saying "we're all in this together" is one thing, but sharing his stories show it.

Honesty, transparency, credibility and accountability all foster trust. Once a leader is trusted, he or she can really lead. In Churchill's case, that meant calling for hard work and sacrifice with rhetoric for the ages. As befits a New Yorker, Cuomo sticks more to the basics, but his words can still move.

"Ten years from now, you will be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren, and you will shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost," Cuomo said in a speech to the National Guard on March 27th, thanking them for converting the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan into a hospital in just one week.

"You will remember the faces and you will remember the names and you will remember how hard we worked — and that we still lost loved ones. And you will shed a tear, and you should, because it will be sad," he continued. "But, you will also be proud. You will be proud of what you did. You will be proud that you showed up."

Dan Gardner is an expert on the psychology of judgment and communication. He is the best-selling author of "The Science of Fear," "Future Babble" and "Superforecasting." Dan is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. His work has been published in The Washington Post, the Economist, and The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Follow him on Twitter @dgardner.

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