Listen to a recording of NLC’s Webinar: COVID-19 Crisis Communication
“It’s not what you say in a crisis. It’s what you do.”
That principle guides my thinking about crisis decision making. It’s why I try to take my classes into the pressure-packed confines of board rooms to see what happens when threatening events rob organizations of two mission-critical assets: time and deliberation.
Under such pressure, our studies show, organizations often make the wrong decision about who or what to protect. Think how Boeing’s decisions might have changed if, at the onset, management acted to protect passengers rather than 737 MAX 8 production lines. It might have prevented a second fatal crash. Transparency is a challenge, too. Private enterprise or public, revelations and admissions tend to go against the grain, culturally and often legally.
The good news for the coronavirus crisis is that we have made the right decision about what to protect: public health. Sounds easy. But in reality, where life and livelihoods are in the balance, choosing to protect lives in the face of overwhelming economic consequences is not only difficult, it is courageous.
The less good news is that clarity has been somewhat of a casualty in COVID-19. Not in the sense that we are without data – we are getting plenty of that. What is in shorter supply is context and consistency. In this crisis, here is how we can stock the shelves with more of it.
One: Let go of partisanship.
Protecting the public’s health is not a partisan objective. If we want to advance the war against the virus, we need to holster partisan ambitions and unify our focus on the common enemy. All over the country, Americans are doing what Americans do: setting aside differences and coming together to help each other. Governments need to do the same. Flighting Twitter birds to take down political rivals is fertilizer for divisiveness and resentment, the very antithesis of acting for the greater public good. So, strenuously resist the urge to weaponize coronavirus. To do so undermines leadership and causes many to ignore the messages they most need to hear.
Two: Separate data from facts.
We’ve all heard the old saw about 99 percent of statistics only tell half the story. It’s a caution worth remembering as we develop crisis communications strategies to address the pandemic. We are a mobile news society. We tend to let data points define stories rather than the other way around. Here’s a good example: Headline: 70% of Americans support universal healthcare. Story: The support drops to 10% if it means abolishing private health insurance plans. The point is, data alone can mislead. So always be sure to tell the whole story.
Three: Appoint a chief skeptics officer.
News of the pandemic is evolving more rapidly, it seems than the virus itself. As a result, it is more important than ever that we  authenticate our sources,  dig for answers, and  report the facts. For the pandemic, every decision-maker and influencer ought to have the equivalent of an investigative journalist on the team who will question every source, every data point and, most important, every decision. The goal is to ensure credibility by keeping the record straight, even if it means admitting mistakes. It goes without saying that these chief skeptics officers have to have permission to ask questions without repercussions.
Four: Convey calm with urgency.
Demeanor is really important, especially in a public health crisis where the population can be tipped toward hysteria by a shopping cart full of toilet paper. This is all about content, consistency and style. With a situation that is literally as large as the planet, letting science and experts guide the conversation is critical. Treat audiences like adults. Adopt candor as an operating premise. Tell the truth. We’re Americans. We know how to deal with tough news. Communicate decisions clearly and starkly. Tamp down the urge to argue and attack those who would disagree. Ramp up the urge to collaborate. Tell people what to do without conflicting visual or verbal clues. Edit out hyperbole. Let the story tell itself.
Five: Embrace technology.
The best part of dealing with this crisis is doing so in the age of digital communication. We have thousands of channels available to reach our public… and we should use them. And we shouldn’t let our channel biases interfere. Ninety-five percent of our youth have smartphones, but they aren’t waiting for calls. We can sell social distancing by using close digital networks where young people convene: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Seniors, another at-risk population, are heavy users of Facebook and YouTube as well. The point is these “word-of-mouth” media networks ought to be fully leveraged. Lives will be saved if we do.
Make sure you are telling your story about HOW you are working with your state and federal counterparts to get resources to your community. Don’t assume your constituents know how the sauce is made. Visit nlc.org/coronavirus for response resources for local leaders.
About the Author: Hud Englehart is a founding partner of Beacon Advisors, Inc. He has been a strategic communications advisor to heads of companies and institutions in four decades and across multiple industries. He helps clients develop and refine their stories, brand their market positions, select and reach targets, and adapt to and maximize the use of evolving media channels. He has managed large agency operations, led communication for global corporations, and acted as Chief Communications Strategist for the governor of Illinois.