Jacinda Ardern Image

Jacinda Ardern: Political Leader with a Strong Compass

Jacinda Ardern, it appears, has set the gold standard for how political leaders should respond in a crisis. The praise for her handling of the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch is coming from all directions. Perhaps most unusually, her picture has been beamed onto Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, accompanied by a special tweet of thanks from Dubai’s Prime Minister, HH Sheikh Mohammed. In New Zealand, almost 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for her to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Jacinda Ardern

Here are a few links to illustrate the extremely positive coverage of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, since the Mosque attacks on March 15th.

The New Yorker – Headline: The roots of Jacinda Ardern’s extraordinary leadership after Christchurch.
The Daily Mail – Headline: World’s tallest building lit up with an image of Jacinda Ardern as Sheik Mohammed thanks New Zealand’s Prime Minister for her empathy and support.
Indy100 – Headline: The world is calling for Jacinda Ardern to get the Nobel Peace Prize, here are 7 reasons why she should.
Vogue – Headline: Why Jacinda Ardern is a leader for our times.

So, what did she get so right?

A Swift Response

Firstly, Ardern was swift in her response. She was tweeting and then speaking about the attack on the day it happened. By the following morning, she was in Christchurch. Click here for the timeline.

Above All Inclusive

Secondly, she was sure-footed in her support and sympathy for the Muslim community.

When she spoke ahead of the one-minute silence in Christchurch, she kept it short and quoted from the Koran. Her sentences were sparse and her language very direct. Nothing highbrow here. “New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.”

Ardern also wore the hijab. Human beings like symbolism. Whether it is a pink ribbon of breast cancer awareness or a silicon wrist band supporting a local charity. Choosing the headscarf, showed humility and respect. A gesture that has been copied by some New Zealanders.

Not Just Talk

Thirdly, she didn’t just speak, she acted. The day after the shooting she said “Our gun laws will change”. Within a week, the government announced legislation banning a range of semi-automatic weapons used in the Christchurch attack. [A stark contrast to the US refusal to reform gun-laws.] Ardern also not only visited Christchurch Muslims but also Muslims in Wellington.

And she promised financial support from the government, to bury the dead and help anyone injured. Here is the full speech but the key paragraphs are:

In an event such as this – murder or manslaughter – the family is eligible for a funeral grant of around $10,000. There are also one-off payments for the deceased’s partner, children and dependents, ongoing assistance provisions for things like childcare and of course compensation for the loss of income.

The Terrorism Word

Fourthly, Ardern did not hesitate to call this attack on Muslims ‘terrorism’. This was significant because there is a perception that a white man going nuts with an arsenal of guns is often described as a lone—wolf attack or instantly related to specific mental health issues; whilst a Muslim man doing the exact same thing will be branded a terrorist, before he has finished shooting. This concern is explored in this article from the Washington Post. Ardern was aware of this and chose to nail her colours to the mast and call the attack terrorism from the outset.

Challenge to Facebook

Finally, she has not flinched from challenging the world to do more to control social media – Facebook in particular. She said: “There are some things we need to confront collectively as leaders internationally…We cannot, for instance, allow some of the challenges we face with social media to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” This will be a difficult one to follow up on, but she is already in discussions with Facebook.

What Can Others Learn From Jacinda?

Speed is Everything in a Crisis

It is so easy to hesitate and wait to assess the full extent of the crisis.  To be sure of the sequence of events or the nature of the damage. And, of course, an early reaction can be a wrong one. But a fast reaction looks authentic and uncompromising.

Embrace Emotion

Probably the smartest thing about Jacinda Ardern according to my ‘Media Coach’ analysis, is that she doesn’t shy away from emotion. As a young, female political leader you might expect her to be carefully unemotional. New Zealand’s young Prime Minister is prepared to show the world emotion. She lets her actions convince people that she is still rational and prepared to do what is necessary.

Use Simple Language

“We are one” is a very simple phrase but it did the job.

In a closely related incident, Emma Gonzalez the US activist and advocate for gun control gave a speech that went viral in February last year. She is a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. She explained in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, that she felt she needed to find a phrase that would be repeated by others. “I knew I would get my job done properly at that rally if I got people chanting something. And I thought ‘We call B.S.’ has four syllables, that’s good, I’ll use that’  A super smart young woman!

Most people struggle to come up with the right words and many would have rejected both ‘We are one’ and ‘We call B.S.’ for being too simplistic. But in both cases, people were repeating them almost as soon as they were uttered.

Don’t Dismiss Symbolism

We are a pack species and we want to belong to a pack or tribe. Wearing something is a simple and easy way to say ‘me too’. But someone has to catch the mood and start it. Wearing the Muslim-style headscarf did just that.

Action Followed Words

The banning of automatic weapons. The instant offer of money. There is a need for action to make sympathy and concern convincing. Whether it is money or changing something, it needs to come swiftly.

It will be fascinating to see to what extent others follow the Jacinda way in the months and years ahead.

Photo Tweeted by HH Sheikh Mohammed

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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