When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective. Steven Covey
We have just completed Year 1 AC – After Covid. Clearly, we don’t know all we need to know. Conversely, we are awash in data and probably know more – collectively – than we think we do. In this series of posts (way too much material for just one!), I’m going to lay out my observations, preliminary conclusions they’ve led me to, and what might be a better approach to future pandemics. Of necessity, this will be focused on the US experience; sadly, these observations seem to apply to the rest of the Western world as well.
In this post, I want to examine how communications to the public have been handled. Quite rightly, President Trump has been criticized for poor communications in 1 AC. Unfortunately (at least to me), most of the criticisms seem to be of the general “Orange Man Bad” variety, i.e., anything he did is wrong a priori. While perhaps satisfying to some, it doesn’t provide any guidance about what we should do the next time – Trump won’t be around then.
At its heart, effective crisis communication is very simple: the leadership develops a message and delivers it to the public who receive it and act on it. As with most things in real life, the devil is in the details.
• First and foremost, leadership must identify the target audience(s). This will always include those most affected by the crisis, as well as all they’re connected to. The goal of crisis communications is not delivery of a message but action. Leadership should identify what the target audience knows, and what actions it can take. If there is more than one target audience, their ability to assimilate information about the crisis may vary, as will their ability to take action. Messaging should take this into consideration.
• Once the audience is identified, leadership must formulate messages that clearly point to the actions that need to be taken. As more is learned about the crisis, messages should change to reflect any additional or different actions. In the early response phases of a crisis, leaders inform the public how they should respond, i.e., do this, don’t do that – “wash your hands,” “maintain your distance from each other.” It is crucial early in a crisis that the public is also told what is known and what’s being done by the leadership to respond to the crisis. In later stages, when more is known, the focus shifts to recovery – “get the vaccine.” At every stage, the message to the public needs to be clear, timely, concise and – most importantly – accurate. Early in a crisis, there will be much that is not known and that fact must be honestly conveyed, but in a way that shows that the leadership is actively looking for the answers. The basis for the actions the public should take ought to be laid out clearly; as additional/different actions are called for, the public should be told what’s changed.
It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, especially in the early stages of a crisis. It is way too easy to play the Blame Game, but leadership needs to avoid this. Acknowledge the source of the error – incomplete data from the states, for example, and then describe the actions that have been taken to rectify the mistake.
• Next, the messenger(s) must be identified. People won’t act if they don’t trust the messenger. Thus, in a crisis, the face the public sees and the voice it hears must be ones they trust. Further, if more than one voice is to be heard, it is absolutely essential that all are conveying the same message. Different messages lead to public distrust and a belief that no one really knows what’s going on. This encourages rumors to spring up like weeds, further confusing the public and diffusing the message. And we all know how hard it is to get rid of weeds!
• The modes of delivery of messages must be determined. For major crises, the mass media will act as intermediaries for many people. Live press briefings are important, especially if recorded and made available for later playback, but special care must be taken to get the media to understand and accurately convey the intended message. Social media can also be useful, but it must be remembered that many people aren’t on social media. The poor – the homeless! – may not have access to digital devices; the elderly and the ill may not be physically able to use these devices. If all parts of the public need to act, then messages need to go where the people are. That means churches, homeless shelters and grocery stores in addition to press briefings.
• Once the message is formulated, and the messenger and mode of delivery determined, the message must be delivered. Ideally, the messenger conveys the messages with seriousness, empathy and confidence. Questions should be encouraged, and honestly answered. If the desired information isn’t known, a promise should be made to address the ignorance, and then kept by following up, ideally at the next briefing. Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, SC, essentially wrote the book on this. After the SC Low Country was devastated by Hurricane Hugo, he delivered daily briefings in a brilliantly effective manner. Even in the early days when the situation was especially dire, he made it a point to have at least one accomplishment to report in each briefing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi was an absolute master at admitting when he didn’t have the answer to a question, but then providing rapid followup. This points to the fact that followup is an important part of delivering the message.
• Finally, it is important that public action is monitored. Too often, communications effectiveness is evaluated in terms of the frequency of delivery. If the goal is action, then action should be monitored, and messaging altered as necessary.
With this as background, let me lay out a few considerations for what we should do the next time. I’ll point to what was done and – in many cases – suggest something different. These are not intended as criticisms of those who were thrust into the breach ill-prepared, but rather to illustrate how different choices might have been more effective.
Audiences. Pandemic communications of necessity are more challenging than those for a hurricane. In a pandemic, the entire country is potentially impacted; in a hurricane, the target audience is those who are in its path. At the early stages of the pandemic, everyone was potentially at risk; everyone needed to take appropriate actions. However, America’s diversity poses huge challenges in getting that message out. We have people jammed together in big cities, and people spread out in wide open spaces. We have regional differences, often coupled with cultural differences. America as melting pot means there are linguistic challenges. And there are huge educational differences.
On top of all of that, our country is politically polarized. Many on the Left had (and still have) a visceral dislike – even hatred – and distrust of President Trump. Conversely, many on the Right almost worshipped the President. And the Great Middle was politically halved as well. This polarization doesn’t seem to have been considered enough at either the federal or state level.
Further, the bureaucrats should have recognized (as I believe that the President did) that Americans generally don’t react well to dictates. We’re congenitally independent; many of us won’t take action unless you “show me” (OK, I was born in Missouri) in terms I’ll understand and believe. In the middle of winter I want a hearty soup, not a pale broth – telling me that I should do something on the basis of a model’s projections from incomplete data is not very nourishing: or convincing, if I have no conception of what mathematical models are.
Messages. Actions should be formulated that are appropriate to each group. Instead, the initial messaging during the pandemic was boiled down to the lowest common denominator – cover your mouth and wash your hands. We knew more and should have communicated that better. We were informed that the immuno-compromised and the elderly were at highest risk (scaring the tar out of us in those categories), but they weren’t told what they could co to protect themselves. Forceful statements early on stressing the importance of sunlight, exercise and social distancing of those at risk might have prevented tens of thousands of deaths. One of the great missed opportunities was when Dr. Fauci was asked what he personally did, and he mentioned taking Vitamin C and D supplements – intended to strengthen the immune system. Strengthen your immune system – this message should have been hammered home again and again; this is the health care equivalent of fortifying your home agains a hurricane.
Messengers. Ideally, there should be a trusted voice for each target audience. During the pandemic, we didn’t really have that: we had the CDC contingent (Fauci and Birx) and President Trump. And, too often, oil and water. In January-February, 2020, the President took forceful action closing the borders; Fauci downplayed its importance. At the same time, the President was portraying the coming surge as a bump in the road (then why close the borders?), not the washout it became. Throughout the first surge, the President would seem to zig while the CDC spokespersons zagged. Little or no message discipline on his part; while the CDC damaged its credibility by first saying “no” to masks, then “yes” to masks and then admitting that its initial “no” was sort of a white lie intended to avoid a public rush on PPE needed by the health care community. And only another scientist would really be interested in the nuances of mathematical models telling us how bad it could be – we needed more actionable information than to just wash our hands. As the pandemic ramped up, the public was confused by two message streams that seemed to randomly approach and diverge from each other.
One of the early actions taken by the President was to name the VP as head of the government task force dealing with the crisis – this was a good move – there were lots of other things going on that the President needed to pay attention to. It would have been even better if the head of the task force was also the primary spokesperson. It is almost a certainty that Mr Pence would have had more message discipline than the President. As head of the task force, he was also much better placed to develop a unified and consistent message with all of the players. And he would not have triggered the visceral rejection by the Left of any message delivered by Mr Trump.
We also would have benefited if messages were better targeted. A “big city” message and an “out in the country” message each tailored to that group could have increased credibility and ultimately compliance as we started to recover. Messages seemed to be aimed at an educated middle class – what about those living in inadequate housing (4.5X more likely to be infected than their middle class peers), with poor water or unemployed (twice as likely), or the homeless? Poor messaging and choice of messengers early on is likely one of the root causes of the “vaccine hesitancy” we’re seeing now.
Delivery. The public’s primary sources of information were press briefings, social media – and rumors. One of the biggest problems with the press briefings was that there didn’t seem to be any medical or scientific reporters. The political activists reporters seemed to be more interested in playing “gotcha games” than asking the tough technical questions that needed to be addressed. For example, they might have questioned the validity of the models that seemed to be guiding policy during much of the early surge, or they might have asked what had changed between the end of January (Dr. Fauci: “There’s no chance in the world that we could do that [lockdowns] to Chicago or to New York or to San Francisco”) to 265 M Americans in lockdown by the end of March. They might have questioned whether state orders placing the infected among the most vulnerable (those in nursing homes) made sense.
The less said about the messaging on social media the better. The former Tweeter-in-Chief is a prolific user, but he’s never met a situation he couldn’t confuse. The messages on social media from the press primarily focused on how wrong the Administration’s response to the crisis was (the impression left was that it bordered on criminal stupidity) rather than on informing the public about what the approach really was.
As a result of the Administration’s poor messaging and the press’s mangling of what message there was, rumors abounded. The public’s initial response – as might be expected – was confusion. Should we wear masks? Should we not go on Spring Break? Eventually those questions were answered affirmatively. And then the protests and riots began.
Now, all of a sudden, everything the public had been told was necessary was found to be – no longer necessary. The CDC – seemingly politicized – mainly was silent on what they had been calling potential “super-spreader” events. Even the President seemed to ignore the potential health impacts and responded instead to the protesters’ and rioters’ politics. This cost him precious credibility with those on the Right.
Monitoring. Finally, there is no apparent evidence that anyone was trying to monitor the effectiveness of the communications. If communications had been monitored, one would hope that messaging would have improved over time, along with message discipline.
Ultimately, the lesson I think we should take away from all of this is that effective crisis communications requires planning. Such a plan should identify target audiences, the desired actions for each audience, and the messages – and messengers – to each. The plan should include delivery of the messages by several means and monitoring of the messages’ effectiveness. Most importantly, the “trust account” should be considered at each step.
In 2010, I gave a talk in New Orleans memorializing Katrina’s fifth anniversary. One of the points I made was that the next crisis won’t be the same as the one before. But if we don’t better plan our communications with the public, the outcome of that next crisis may turn out much the same – lives lost, businesses ruined, and a badly frayed social fabric. And if that planning does not have “trust” front and center then the public won’t act. Who are the target audiences? What actions do we want them to take? Who has earned their trust and can deliver the message? How can we get the message to them in a way they will heed it? Trust is interwoven into all of these, and thus should be a cornerstone of our planning. Certainly building trust and planning both take time. But over half a million dead offer mute testimony to the cost of not doing so. A grim lesson of 1 AC.
For any of you who might be interested, our paper on stress testing communities is now available online at: