In Our Covid Crisis, Communicators Are Essential to the Process
While most of us are confronting the day-to-day realities of lockdown in the coronavirus era, we are quick to judge which policymakers are effective — and which are not — based on how well they communicate with the public. We see California Gov. Gavin Newsom experiencing approval rates north of 80 percent. We witness New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo parlay his daily briefings into a “draft Cuomo for president” movement.
Similarly, we watch daily briefings from President Donald Trump, must-watch television that are the best or worst of covid response, all depending on our political perspectives and what we want to see — or don’t want to see — in political leadership at a time of crisis.
Through it all, the media is quick to reference response and reaction to the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. And while we may be able to compare death tolls and the flattening of the curve in 1918 and 2020, it is near impossible to compare public engagement before the height of the analog, industrial age with that of the the digital, information age.
Instead, we might be able to look at lessons learned from lesser pandemics, particularly from how governments successfully responded to the crisis and how those governments communicated with their constituents. In 2004, I had the opportunity to work with the Hong Kong Department of Health as part of its analysis of its response to the SARS epidemic.
What did we learn in 2004 that we should be applying today? The answers are fairly simply, yet incredibly important to the government response expected over the coming weeks and coming months.
In times of pandemic, government communicators must set clear priorities. While it is too late to develop pre-crisis protocols, there is still an opportunity to ensure that there is sufficient communications staffing to carry out the work. We can still provide sufficient information internally across government agencies so that all people involved are prepared to carry out their communications responsibilities. Most importantly, we can ensure that the government, both federal and state, communicates that it is concerned, that is doing all it can to protect the public, and that it is providing all of the facts.
Messaging and Delivery
In communicating those concerns, whether in pandemic or in any other crisis, government agencies must receive continuous input from communications professionals of whether key messages are being delivered efficiently. As the success of Governor Cuomo illustrates, they must clarify who has the authority and responsibility to develop and deliver messages, doing so quickly and with high credibility.
Messaging during pandemic is not a responsibility that a single individual can be responsible for. As we’ve seen during President Trump’s daily briefings, the most well-received engagements are ones where Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx are also involved. Successful partner coordination includes identifying, development, and expanding endorsements from healthcare professionals and other organizations and individuals as quickly as possible. It means providing a clear, coordinated message to all speaking on behalf of government. And it requires systematically involving the media in the process, recognizing its role as a partner in disseminating information and keeping the public informed.
As we are just starting to learn, a month into our coronavirus crisis, there is more to resource allocation than ensuring that masks and ventilators are getting where they need to be. Information itself is an important resource that must be successfully allocated. All involved in the process must have a sufficient level of knowledge and understanding of the elements of risk communication. Government agencies must commit sufficient resources to the gathering and analysis of what is communicated and how it received. And we need to make the financial commitment to provide access to the print and digital materials needed by both the media and the average American.
Training and Preparation
Just as we focus on the importance of training and preparation for healthcare professionals and those on the front lines of the pandemic, we must do the same for those speaking for government at all levels. That means providing training that ensures individuals understand the basic concepts and principles of risk assessment, risk management, and risk communications. It means developing written communications plans for various scenarios, while developing comprehensive messaging for those scenarios. And it requires providing cross-training risk communication workshops for health officials, emergency responders, representatives from special populations, and a wide pool of experts knowledgeable on the risk and issues, all committed to the notion that a better educated citizenry is better equipped to dealing with the issues and concerns that will likely come.
As a society, we are a month into shelter-in-place orders and an economy at risk. We spend our days debating the availability of needed equipment and the seriousness of exposure in our local communities. We question the value of virtual schooling and push back on the closure of public parks. Yet regardless of our personal opinions of coronavirus and government response to it, those opinions are shaped and colored and educated by what we hear from government officials and how trustworthy we find such communications.
That means that successful communications strategy and public engagement is essential to our shared response to covid. Such communications guides our daily actions, our trust in government, and our ability to accept government directives — particularly if they directly impact our household finances, jobs, or educations — for the mid to long term.
It may be quick and easy to dismiss the “flack” in government and politics, but in times like this, knowledgeable, effective communications professionals are essential to the process. Successful communications can be a reason why we flatten the curve this spring, rather than letting the spread drag long into the summer. Successful communications responses to past health crises have shown us both why and how. We just have to be smart enough to learn those communications lessons.