The Italian Leadership Style in the Coronavirus Crisis

For the latest Transatlantic Take of the German Marshall Fund, I have taken a look at the style of the Italian leadership in the Covid-19 crisis, analysing the approach of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. You can find my entry below.

Late in Action, Grand in Communication in Italy

In early February, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—like everyone in the Italian political landscape—dismissed the risks from the coronavirus pandemic. He later started realizing the mounting challenge, but leadership was not decisive early. As the crisis unfolded, Conte tried to portray himself as a calm leader. He privileged, particularly in the beginning, communication via the internet, talking to Italians on Facebook. Some commentators defined this as the contemporary version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio “fireside chats:” approaching the public without mediation to announce bad news and crucial decisions. This approach sparked criticism as he did not use traditional institutional channels such as parliament, nor did he use public broadcasting (though as the crisis deepened, he changed his approach). The press conference in which he announced the national lockdown was delivered via web late on a Saturday night.

Conte often uses the “Royal We,” the rhetorical choice aimed at amplifying the importance of the message. In literature and poetry, this rhetorical choice is used to strengthen the emotional connection between writer and reader. It is likely that Conte adopted this style to reinforce this bond. Indeed, one of the crucial features of his communication style was to strengthen the perception of the public being involved in the process. He has carefully avoided a top-down approach, which historically does not resonate well with the Italian public. As some commentators said, Conte has been trying to do “moral suasion“ rather than imposing clear-cut solutions. He has also attempted to craft specific messages through catchy slogans. For instance, when announcing “Phase 2,” he launched the slogan “If you love Italy, keep the distances,” which was widely shared on social media.

Conte used particular war rhetoric, saying that Italy was “at war” with the virus, but he always tried to deliver his message quietly. He also made several “high” cultural references, such as to Winston Churchill and his “darkest hour” speech. This is a classic element of Conte’s rhetoric, and not only in times of crisis: coming from academia and not being a “real” politician, he wants to maintain the image of being close to the people but not entirely like “the people.”

The only “incendiary” moment the prime minister had was when he accused in a televised press conference two opposition leaders, Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, of spreading “disinformation.” While this was condemned by the opposition parties and some commentators for being authoritarian, it enhanced his popularity among citizens who do not like the current opposition leaders. Polarization has intensified after an initial phase of the crisis in which the political landscape tried to be united.

Despite the problems and impact of the crisis, Conte’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past few months. It was 64 percent in April, slightly lower than in March when it peaked at 71 percent but still high compared to a pre-crisis 52 percent rating in February. Also, his “web reputation” has risen. As a prime minister without a party and not even an elected member of parliament, it will be interesting to see how his new political capital will be put to use once the crisis is over.

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