An Open Letter To Politicians Re: Communicating During An On-Going Crisis
By E.E. Wang Lukowski and Bill Furlow
Dear [Insert Name Here]:
It’s been nearly 60 days since COVID-19 was declared a national health emergency, and during that time we have seen plenty of press briefings — few great, some good, some bad and some truly horrible.
As communications professionals — and for the benefit of the viewers who watch all those briefings — we wanted to share with you some tips on how to better communicate during times of on-going crisis.
· Focus on Quality, not Quantity. We know you’re on top of things — but, frankly, there’s no need to update us on what you’re doing every single day (or even every single weekday) for months at a time. While you and your team may be living the crisis every single hour, the reality is that most of us in the public are trying to balance a multitude of other life priorities. Just let us know the two or three key things we need to know today.
In an on-going crises, most of your audience wants to know only these things:
1. How has the situation changed in a way that’s relevant to me?
2. What substantive progress has been made or actions are being taken since the last update?
3. Do I need to do anything different?
If you don’t have answers to at least a couple of those questions, chances are, you don’t have much to report. Better to wait until you can provide a more meaningful and substantive update.
In the early hours or days of an on-going crisis — as was the case with 9/11 — it may be necessary to provide frequent updates to avoid misinformation and to assure people that effective action is being taken. However, as a crisis extends, providing substance-free daily updates does little to instill calm and assure the public that your team has things under control. In many cases, it will actually be counterproductive.
· Keep it Simple and Factual. Crises are often complicated situations. But don’t make things worse and create additional anxiety by confusing your public with an overabundance of minutiae, flowery adjectives, self-praise and unnecessary details.
Each briefing should have a theme or two. Limit the facts you’re tossing out to those that address your themes.
Avoid being overly dramatic or optimistic about the situation. Your job isn’t to tell people how they should feel but rather to tell them what you are doing and how they can help.
· Stay on Topic and Stay in the Present. The middle of a crisis briefing is not the time to bring up non-relevant issues, comment on political rivals or relive the past. If your goal is to reassure the public that looking after their well-being and mitigating the crisis are your highest priorities, staying on topic and highlighting common goals will emphasize that point.
On that note, while we think it’s great to have subject matter experts on hand to answer questions, make sure those experts stick to information that is in their wheelhouse and that they are capable of giving succinct, understandable answers. The flip side of that is to let them give the information they know better than you do.
· Acknowledge What You Don’t Know and Avoid Guessing and Supposition. No one expects their president, Congressman, governor, mayor or even their local public health official or scientist to have all the answers. In the current crisis, the 24/7 news media have shown that they will publish any guess, supposition or new theory that nearly anyone wants to offer. It’s far better to say you don’t know about something or that more research needs to be done than to let an erroneous guess become your recurring Waterloo moment or Internet meme.
On that same note, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver. If the timetable is unclear, say so. If the solution is still being determined, say so.
· Be Compassionate and Sincere and Avoid Overused and Trite Expressions. Everyone knows that some crises, like COVID-19, result in deaths and severe injury. And it’s important to express genuine compassion. But overusing clichés like “our hearts and prayers go out to victims”, or “we’re all in this together” become white noise and often seem disingenuous. A better strategy?
· Say something specific and personal.
· Give sincere thanks by name to people who are playing a key role in mitigating the crisis.
· Focus on the future.
We know you’re doing your best — and we sincerely hope that the above points help you do it better. Communications is important, and quality briefings that are focused, factual and to the point can be one of the most effective tools to promote calm and encourage unified participation from the public during times of crisis. You’ve got the pulpit. Use it wisely.
Prior to her current role as the chief marketing officer for a Silicon Valley based technology company, E.E. Wang Lukowski was a corporate communications executive and consultant to public companies and non-profits for more than 15 years. She is passionate about technology and the effective use of communications to bring people together toward a common purpose.
Bill Furlow was an independent crisis and strategic communications consultant for 25 years, after having spent an equal amount of time in the daily newspaper business. He lives in Greensboro, NC.