Politics is the struggle for power. So, what is the difference between political crisis communication and corporate crisis communication? Unlike corporate crisis communication, political crisis communication is less about money (though, money matters) and more about legitimacy.
In political crises, the court of public opinion is paramount. If we accept the tenants of modern political theory, then we can understand why this is the case. “The people” are the final check on government. If the leaders of a country or nation fail to adjust their policies to satisfy the public, then they risk being overthrown. Political leaders everywhere do things that displease the publics they serve, but usually they are able to complicate the issues enough to retain power. Usually, they communicate well enough to get enough people on their side. Some populations also have a higher tolerance for political ambiguity; other populations are largely content with authoritarian rule. But, where there is low tolerance and strong democratic ideals, communication among publics and governments is key.
International political communication is used by nations to gain influence across boarders. This communication is no longer just among political actors, however. More and more we see leaders appealing to publics in other nations. This communication is primarily about political posturing on a global scale.
What does it look like when political communications goes wrong?
Last month the president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovych, failed to effectively communicate with the Ukrainian people.
Yanukovych failed to recognize how much public support there was for a EU association agreement that would have connected Ukraine more to the Western world. Citing pressure from Russia, Yanukovych rejected the EU agreement and turned toward Russia instead.
Yanukovych tried to complicate this decision by explaining that the EU agreement would have been insufficient to help their economy. But, his abrupt change in position did not allow the public to become accustomed to the idea. Furthermore, Yanukovych told the public that it was in part due to pressure from Russia. This damaged his credibility as the leader of a sovereign nation.
Not long after, protests broke out in the capital, Kiev. This created unrest, and it involved violence between protesters and government police.
In the midst of this political crisis, Yanukovych disappeared. Protesters took control of Kiev.
In any crisis, the last thing you want to do is to disappear. This makes you appear both guilty and incapable. It also allows those who oppose you to define the situation against you. Politically, it also leaves your allies out in the cold, leaving them no option except to abandon your side.
When Yanukovych reappeared a week later in Russia (of all places), he had lost all support. He still called himself the president of Ukraine, but he had already been replaced. He cited threats to his life as the reason he fled, but at that point his excuses (no matter how good) did not matter.
Yanukovych’s explanation also fell flat because he had cut off communications while on the run. With modern technology, staying in contact with his power structure should not have been that difficult.
Yanukovych’s communication errors did not stop with his disappearance. Following his reappearance, Yanukovych insisted upon Russian action in Ukraine. This helped to legitimize Russian military intervention. Yanukovych did say that he opposed Russian military actions in Ukraine, but he failed to specify exactly what he thought Russia should do to help. Russia eventually took Crimea through military action.
Yanukovych asked for troops to get his power back with no success, denounced those he had abandoned as “fascists,” and blatantly lied about his lavish lifestyle. These are, of course, not good messages to send during a crisis.