This is Not a Drill: Communicating in the Wake of COVID-19
These are unprecedented times, but you already know that. Our work lives are upended, our children are taking classes via Google Classroom and Zoom, and we are all adjusting to life behind screens within our homes, without much human contact from our co-workers and larger community.
I am concerned about my husband and his small business, my 11-year-old son, my 16-year-old daughter, my aging mother and in-laws, and my friends and neighbors. At the same time, as a professional, I can’t help but think of how crisis communications skills and planning are needed now more than ever.
Why now? Because we need message and information clarity and consistency from our leaders – now more than ever – to save lives, slow down the spread of this frightening disease and provide hope for the future.
For more than 20 years, I’ve advised senior clients at the state, national and international levels on how to plan and be ready for a crisis, particularly because effective communication is one of the keys to success. My clients have included a prime minister, a governor, several political party candidates, such as the successful presidential candidate in Croatia, and international communications professionals within the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Peace Corps.
I’ve advised them to be ready. Have a crisis communications plan and make sure people know where to find it and how to implement it. Run practice scenarios and drills. Train your staff to be spokespersons. Know your talking points.
But this is not a drill. Unfortunately, I don’t think many in our highest levels of government are prepared, despite a few shining examples: Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, Director Anthony Fauci of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN all come to mind immediately.
Why are these high-profile leaders performing so well? And what advice can I give to other leaders facing COVID-19 in these uncertain times?
First, they keep it simple. No fancy language. Just straight talk about what is happening and what we can expect. Accurate figures are important, as are key facts.
Second, they’ve prepared for this. They’ve practiced fielding tough questions, keeping their cool and being on camera, and it shows. They most likely didn’t start out being as comfortable as they appear now.
Third, they stick to what they know and say when they don’t know. This is a personal favorite of mine that was learned the hard way over two decades. I’ve had many tough conversations after I’ve left the studio or interview with a client who has failed to heed this advice. They over-promised and had to walk back a statement. But good communicators stay in their lane, call on others when needed and say when they don’t have the information.
Fourth, they brief frequently and reinforce messages. They recognize that we can’t possibly absorb the large amount of information coming at us from social media, daily updates and more all at once. They stick to their talking points and reinforce the big messages.
Fifth, they are not afraid to answer tough questions, no matter how small or ridiculous they may seem. People have real concerns and they attempt to answer with honesty and concern.
And finally, they recognize their roles as spokespersons to bring empathy, understanding and patience. These are real men and women – moms, dads, daughters, sons, cousins and more. They bring their personal narrative to the microphone when appropriate, which helps the audience relate to them.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
Luckily for us, so many across the United States and around the world are doing for others every single day. I have every belief in the power, faith and tenacity of my neighbors and friends, inventors and researchers, health care workers, pharmacists, delivery people, restaurant and grocery store workers, and so many others who are helping us to stay healthy and alive. We will get through this crisis together.
If we can add a few more skilled communicators into the mix, I will be ever so grateful. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and help.
Learn more about our COVID-19 crisis and risk communications approaches.