As Belgians enjoy extensive relaxation of the Covid-19 lockdown measures with bars, restaurants, shops and sports facilities reopening, H+K Strategies Brussels’ Joseph Lemaire takes pause to consider the communications journey of the country’s prime minister Sophie Wilmès.

Baptism by fire

The appointment of Sophie Wilmès as Belgium’s interim prime minister of a caretaker government in October 2019 (while coalition formation negotiations were ongoing following the May elections) took many as a surprise. The first woman to ever hold the role, she had less than five years’ political experience at any level and was plucked from relative obscurity over more experienced candidates. Hardly a household name, these characteristics were a clear advantage for the task she was given: to quietly and unobtrusively keep the ship of state on an even keel until a new plenipotentiary captain could be appointed. But then the Covid-19 storm hit and everything changed. Wilmès was unexpectedly and rudely thrust into the spotlight when the federal parliament voted in March to afford her governing powers to deal with the pandemic.

The reluctant premier

Even with those new powers, Wilmès was never going to be a showy prime minister, and this was reflected in her approach to public briefings on the pandemic. Where other countries’ leaders plumped for daily outings, Wilmès’ approach was a model of cautious communications. Over the course of three months her government held a total of eight briefings, an average of just 2.6 a month. These focused on the announcements of major new measures and left to the scientists and epidemiologists the daily updates on the disease’s evolution in the country.

This was a clever approach. It successfully distanced the political from the scientific, and by depoliticising the science built public trust in the scientists. It also created the impression that the relatively infrequent government announcements were considered and mattered, which spiked people’s attention. It’s no overstatement to say that the government press conferences in May were keenly anticipated by the press and public alike.

Stumbling at the starting blocks

However sophisticated Wilmès’ strategy, her delivery was decidedly less assured, particularly in the first few weeks of managing the crisis. Government briefings were criticised for being too long and complex, for lacking clarity and being unaccompanied by simple documentation to clearly explain the new measures imposed. Briefings scheduled late in the evening, and often postponed, were a thorn in the side of Belgium’s media, forcing broadcasters to fill airtime and frustrating the newspapers eager to go to print. Wilmès personally faced criticism for generating confusion and adding to rather than reducing the level of public anxiety. Many questioned whether the woman from Rhode-Saint-Genèse was up to the job.

The human touch

But Wilmès progressively won back the media and public’s support. It was clear from later briefings that she’d taken the criticisms on board and reset her approach. Subsequent briefings were simpler, shorter and clearer and scheduled in the early afternoon, on time for the evening news bulletins and next day’s papers to cover the announcements in detail. The fact that Wilmès had demonstrated she could listen, take the criticism on the chin and most importantly course correct, demonstrated a modesty in her approach that many in this understated country deeply appreciated.

This was critical in earning public trust in the government’s decisions. As was her consistency. Her simple style was not discombobulated by the Covid crisis, and she has projected an image of unshowy steadiness throughout, as well as deep humanity: Wilmès still starts and finishes each public address with messages of genuine concern and sympathy for those impacted by the pandemic.

Sophie Wilmès was clearly thrown into the deep end of crisis governance by the Covid-19 pandemic. An untested and initially unassured novice, she made some bad mistakes to begin with. But if there is one key lesson to derive from her communications performance it is that, even if everything was not perfect, being true to oneself, human and empathic goes a long way to winning hearts and minds. Which is the key communications challenge we all face.