To blame or not to blame? Wouter Engler

To blame or not to blame?

How leaders frame crises and what they get out of it.

Crises put public leaders to the test and can make or break their careers. For example Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York. He gained international praise for his leadership after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A contrasting example is former prime minister of Japan Naoto Kan. He eventually resigned after receiving widespread criticism for his leadership during the nuclear disaster in Fukushima 2011.

Although of crucial importance, the political faith of public leaders is not solely affected by their actions during the crisis itself. Political outcomes of a crisis are for a large part shaped during the aftermath when questions of responsibility and blame are publicly debated. This immediately begins after the crisis took place and the first hours of firefighting, rescuing lives and restoring public order have gone by. During the aftermath, facts and figures alone do not determine the political outcomes of crises. Strategic communication and rival interpretations of the course of events are of equal importance.

Boin, ‘t Hart and McConnell (2009) labelled these dynamics as ‘crisis exploitation games’. During these games both public leaders in office and their opponents use crises for political gain and portray them as triggers for desired policy change. According to the scholars, leaders have three ‘crisis frames’ at their disposal; 1) denial, 2) crisis as threat and 3) crisis as opportunity. Each frame portrays a different picture of the crisis and can be deployed to strategically communicate during the aftermath. The ‘denial frame’ is about communicating all is business as usual and there is no crisis. The two other frames are about acknowledging the crisis and allocating blame in two different directions. The ‘crisis as threat frame’ points at an outside threat to be countered by the office holder. The ‘crisis as opportunity frame’ implies the public leader accepts some degree of responsibility for the crisis. This creates an opportunity to change failing policies and organization structures in place.

With the assistance of students in the master program Crisis and Security Management at Leiden University this framework was taken as a point of departure to assess the crisis exploitation games of twenty unique, local crises in the Netherlands. The crises ranged from large scale riots, fires, violent demonstrations and public anxiety caused by returning sex offenders. The study analyzed how Dutch mayors communicated during the aftermath of local crises. More specially, it took a closer look at the level of success of their framing strategies in terms of political survival and policy outcomes.

Key finding of this research project is a recurring pattern of crisis exploitation. In a vast majority of the cases mayors framed the crisis as a ‘critical threat’, thereafter faced some criticism on their actions or lack thereof and, in the end, were able to keep their job. In some cases mayors even realized desired policy change during the aftermath of the crisis. These were rather successful outcomes for mayors as they stayed in office and sometimes even realized policy change. These outcomes were, in almost every case, preceded by a framing strategy acknowledging the crisis and allocating blame to an external cause or actor.

The study also found that these political and policy outcomes of crisis exploitation games were not shaped by strategic communication alone. As the framework by Boin, 't Hart and McConnell suggested, multiple contextual factors were in play. In many cases mass media and new information made available through official inquiries affected crisis exploitation games. Media attention limited the scope of available frames as, for example, denial was not a credible option when the crisis was all over the news. Also public inquiries presenting new facts about the crisis and the way leaders addressed it affected the credibility of crisis frames as well as public support for the leader’s position.

The conclusion is that the aftermaths of crises are about the question ´who is to blame?’ In this regard, the study highlights the importance of a public leader’s communication efforts during aftermath of a crisis. Leaders can strategically adopt and alter crisis frames in an attempt to steer towards desired outcomes in the political and policy arena. When they do, it is wise to assess how contextual factors, such as media attention and official inquiries, affect the credibility of their crisis frames.