The cringe-inducing sight of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison grabbing citizens of fire ravaged communities to shake their hands is a lesson about understanding people. After criticism for being on holiday during the fires, Morrison returned early and got out to meet the affected people.
It was too late. A complex bundle of emotions and issues had already combined to make him the person to blame. If his PR people had spotted this trend, then they made a bad mistake in sending him on a ‘tragedy tour’. Visiting after a crisis can exacerbate the differences between an unaffected leader and their affected audience.
Politicians are regularly walking straight into this backlash. In only the past few months Mombasa Governor Ali Hassan Joho was heckled when visiting after a ferry tragedy, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was drowned out during a speech commemorating the Dayton mass shooting.
Leaders seem particularly blind to this risk if they believe their popularity is strong. Sadiq Kahn, Mayor of London, was angrily heckled when he visited after the Grenfell Tower fire. Leaders need to recognise the extraordinary conflagration of emotions involved in tragedies and tough times. Blame is natural, and it will often settle on the most prominent targets, even if unjustified.
In response, leaders must be original in what they say and do. Photo-opportunity tragedy tours will almost always be a disaster. Unpublicised appearances to help out, muck in, or listen will go down much better.