The St Patrick’s Day Address – An Taoiseach’s career defining coronavirus speech

By Martyn Rosney

The natural communications style of leaders is to reassure and tell people that everything is fine and under control. This is especially true in the midst of an issue or crisis but what we saw from An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in a state address delivered on Ireland’s national holiday, St. Patrick’s Day was something entirely different. This address from An Taoiseach has already garnered near unanimous praise and will be rightly held up as a case study in pure leadership. Boiled down to the basics, the key elements of communications from a leader in a crisis are consistency, accuracy and transparency. Right now, An Taoiseach’s most important job is to ensure that the wider population will follow prevention recommendations and to do that he must be consistent, accurate and transparent. We’ve moved beyond party politics, our focus must be on the national interest and protecting our loved ones. 

Over 11 minutes and a little over 1800 words, An Taoiseach delivered a career defining speech in a confident and disciplined manner that has achieved its aim of reassuring Irish citizens while also creating a stronger sense of unity that will be needed in the coming months to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

“Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh! This is a Saint Patrick’s Day like no other. A day that none of us will ever forget. Today’s children will tell their own children and grandchildren about the national holiday in 2020 that had no parades or parties… but instead saw everyone staying at home to protect each other.”

Empathy is vital in any address during difficult times but it’s very tricky to get right. In the past, Varadkar has come in for criticism over a perceived lack of empathy, during election debates in January he effectively admitted that he does not “show empathy” as well as he might. The St. Patrick’s Day speech had empathy at its core right from the start. Effectively displaying empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us relay information in a way that will resonate best with the audience. To display empathy, it's not always necessary to share the same experiences or circumstances as others all the time, instead it’s a genuine attempt to better understand the other person by getting to know their perspective. In his opening Varadkar has found and addressed that unique experience we all shared in Ireland yesterday.

“We need your co-operation and that of business and industry to make social distancing workable.  This may mean changing how you do your business… but we will work with you to find safe and creative ways to do this.”

Building on the importance of empathy it is also important to build a sense of unity by being open and transparent about the challenge we are all facing. The speech was very much about the “we” and the “us” and this went a long way to build a stronger connection with those watching. A problem shared is a problem halved and everyone listening and watching will have their own opinion on what to do and when to do it. The sharing of dilemmas and how you have arrived at decisions is an effective  way of building trust with your audience. Varadkar shared much of the thinking behind Government decision making and also foreshadowed many of the challenges we will face over the coming months.

“We are asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other.”

The address which aired on Ireland’s national station RTÉ was broadcast under Section 122 of the Broadcast Act, which allows the Irish Government broadcasting time for announcements in the event of a major emergency. An Taoiseach addressed the nation at 9PM on RTE and Virgin Media. His audience though wasn’t only those tuned in on terrestrial television. He was speaking to the sub editors of tomorrow’s newspapers, radio news producers and the real time social media commentators. Time limitations, and in recent years character limits, make the soundbite vital to get right to maximise message dissemination. The vast majority aren’t watching live, they’re forming their opinion based on the tweets, the headlines and the forwarded WhatsApps. Varadkar dropped a lot of soundbites in this speech. Everyone knows a good soundbite when they hear one - it grabs the ear and lingers in the mind.  “Not all superheroes wear capes… some wear scrubs and gowns,” will become a T-Shirt in coming weeks and served as a succinct way of further recognising the hard work of the frontline healthcare workers he had praised throughout the speech. “This is the calm before the storm – before the surge. And when it comes – and it will come – never will so many ask so much of so few,” Paraphrasing Churchill’s famous wartime speech has firmly put the nation on war footing. Interestingly, this is a tactic French PM Macron employed also in his address on March 15 when he explicitly said “We are at war” six times in his address to the nation and this statement was used for many global headlines. “Come together as a nation by staying apart” was a perfect rallying call to ensure the prevention measures would stick in the minds of the audience and serve as perfect newspaper headlines.

“To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you. To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you. Viruses pay no attention to borders… race… nationality or gender. They are the shared enemy of all humanity.”

During a crisis, how our leaders speak to the public is paramount. The job of a leader in a public health crisis is to do all in their power to ensure that the public will follow the prevention measures recommended by the experts. When communicated to correctly, the public will follow the recommended measures and continue to do during the crisis. If it’s done poorly, though, it can undermine trust in the institutions leading an emergency response and we have unfortunately seen this play out devastatingly for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

Ending his speech, the key message from An Taoiseach is that we must all be united. His speech was incredibly well crafted by Professor Patrick Geoghegan and delivered in a calm, compassionate and empathetic manner with gravitas by An Taoiseach. While the message was stark and further troubles foreshadowed, it was also sprinkled with a sense of hope and unity that working together locally, nationally and globally we can defeat this virus together.

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