A lesson in rhetoric

By Ian Silvera

The press conference is a very particular type of communications beast. It’s not a speech, in the sense that questions don’t always follow in that format, and it’s not a pre-recorded message, the sort of TV appearance a monarch or two would give around Christmas. The press conference, in contrast, offers serious jeopardy for the principle speaker. If they’re not ‘on their brief’, a journalist can easily skewer them – kebab-style – on live TV.

There are no such worries for New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who prefers sausages over kebabs anyway. The no-nonsense 62-year-old is quickly winning fans across the political spectrum in his part of America thanks to his clear, concise and informative briefings.

Cuomo’s overriding quality is his candor, something the late and great CEO of General Electric Jack Welch would admire. With a slideshow projected to the side of him, Cuomo explains on a daily basis how the US Federal Government is dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and what is going on at the state level. If there are shortages of personal protective equipment for health workers, for instance, the senior Democrat will admit as much and outline what he is doing to tackle the problem.

The messaging isn’t contrived or convoluted either: New York State is “on pause”, Cuomo is “gonna go to work” and if there is anyone to blame for the region’s lockdown, “blame me”. Keep it simple, stupid (KISS), as the US Navy used to say.

Talking of ships and war as well as leadership and communications, you inevitability run into former First Lord of the Admiralty turned Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Sir Winston was very much ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ during World War II, when he travelled more than 105,000 miles visiting soldiers, attending conferences and surveying battlefields outside the UK, according to historian Andrew Roberts.

Churchill was visible and that’s something leading business and political figures have shown during this crisis. Dame Sharon White, the new Chair of the John Lewis Partnership, was spotted stacking shelves in a branch of Waitrose in North London, for example. Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte, meanwhile, has been visiting supermarkets to show solidarity with hard-pressed workers. 

Other honourable mentions include New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has adopted a “go hard and go early” strategy complimented by consistent and clear messaging. The art of good communications is needed more now than ever.