Podcast 🎧 and blog: Digital leadership is a key asset in times of crisis

10.11.2021 | Federico Plantera


Of the many things that have been put to test by the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and decision makers’ ability to face an unprecedented crisis situation is arguably among the most salient. Effective leadership took shape not only through the actual preventive and limiting measures pursued, but also the ways these have been communicated.

The relationship between governments and the public is now under discussion probably more than ever before. In the narrowing or increasing of the distance between citizens and the public sector can often lie the success of truly effective digital leadership. This, beyond the COVID crisis – it matters also to the promotion and adoption of public digital solutions.

Social media consultancy Propel and Brandwatch investigated the way governments’ online presence and performance affect trust, perceptions and, more specifically, people’s ways of coping with an all-too-familiar restrictions fatigue. Roger Christie, Managing Director at Propel, guides us through their recently published report and what research shows to be the key ingredients to leveraging digital leadership.

Digital leaders bridge gaps with the real world

Like we dismissed royalty by divine right, so we should first look at digital leadership. Not all leaders are borndigital leaders. Whether they should be such, instead, is a whole other topic.

“In the public sector there seems to be a natural aversion to things that might seem risky or could disrupt how things have been. It’s a matter of legacy, in this sense – the private sector is faster to take on new trends because it has to do so, for commercial purposes. If you throw social media into the mix, you can guess where it would fall in the framework of a public sector perspective. But I believe COVID has forced a change there,” Roger Christie says.

So, are our public sector leaders digital by nature? “I don’t think so, but many are recognizing the importance of building their own digital brand, and many have already jumped on board,” Christie continues. In times of crisis, specifically, digital leadership becomes an incredibly effective and relevant asset. It allows leaders to bridge communication gaps with citizens and the public. But it has to be done well.

A case in point of effective digital leadership in times of crisis

To enable public decision makers to look at social media in a different light, Propel and Brandwatch decided to provide evidence on the utility of good social media use. To this end, they focused on the profile of Daniel Andrews, Premier of the Australian state of Victoria. The state was one of the hardest hit by COVID, going through 112 consecutive days of lockdown until October 2020. Consequently, his government faced considerable pressure as citizens were facing the greatest strains.

“We compared what he did and the responses he received in 2020 with the same record in 2019, to detect whether differences in his activity had positively or negatively impacted perceptions of reputation, credibility, and trust towards his government,” Christie explains.

“We thought we might find some normalizing effect in these numbers – i.e., his digital brand might have helped to keep things stable. Instead, more impressively, his involvement and ability to humanize and personalize challenges made him more relatable in the eyes of citizens. There was a calming, empowering, collegial impact. People recognized that he was alongside them. We found increased levels of positivity and joy, definitely beyond those one would expect when a state lies in such a dark situation,” Christie highlights.


What data says – governments must take part in the discussion

The COVID pandemic has made digital leadership more than just a nice-to-have, for the nature of the restrictions implemented that enforced distancing. It has become a necessity. Government must take part in the discussion, as citizens increasingly turn to social media as an information platform, and to politicians as a source.

A recent study of the News & Media Research Centre of the University of Canberra (Australia) clearly shows how news consumption through social media had increased across the board during the months of lockdown in the country. Out of a sample of over 2000 respondents aged 18+, 38% referred to have sought information about COVID-19 from social media. Breaking this figure down by age groups, members of generations Z (68%), Y (54%), and X (35%) have been those to resort to social media the most.

Though this may not come as a surprise, the data becomes more interesting when pooled with the sources of information. In Australia, 38% of respondents looked at the national government for news and information, while 19% did so with politicians. But such figure for the latter is quite evenly spread across generations – when it comes to non-news sources about COVID, citizens consistently relied on politicians for information.


Four key findings to enable change for the better

Digital leadership has become a key asset in times of crisis. “To be an effective digital leader, you need to participate in the environment where conversations are being had, and listen to what is being said too. Today, social media is providing that rich source of real time feedback that politicians and governments need,” Christie concludes.

The result of the analysis conducted by Propel and Brandwatch in Australia is not specific to that country, or thisleader. Education and empowerment across the public sector will be key to embrace the tide of a change that, largely, has already started everywhere.


Four takeaways sum up what to look after.

  1. Effective digital leadership is a magnet for positivity. Building such brand equity ahead of time is an important avenue to build positivity among people.
  2. Institutions without such kind of human (and humane) face are those who run the real risk. It’s much easier to throw criticism and rage at a faceless entity, than a human with thoughts and feelings.
  3. Individuals can reassure and energize other individuals much better than faceless institutions.
  4. A known and established digital brand is an invaluable crisis asset for any leader. It is something to build and curate now, treat with the respect of other communication channels. If leaders lack that, they give up on the control of what they say online.