Leaders must be confident in a crisis. Show the public you know what you are doing. Command and control. But how do you do this when there are so many things that you don’t know, cannot know, and will not know until mother nature reveals what she has in store for us; until the layers of events unfold and new facts emerge?
Consider what we don’t know. We don’t know how quickly the virus will spread. We don’t know where the next outbreak will be. We don’t know how lethal this virus is, or how many will die, or who is most at risk. We don’t know if this will end quietly, or resume with a vengeance with another wave later this year. We don’t have a vaccine yet – we don’t know how long it will take to develop one, nor how much we can produce by when. And the list goes on.
Our leaders must communicate in a way that builds and sustains public trust for the long haul. Advice for sustaining public confidence in the face of uncertainty:
1. Avoid over-reassurance. A promise made today and broken tomorrow damages trust and your ability to lead. It is a common leadership conundrum: the public abhors uncertainty, so a leader wants to provide comfort in reassurance. But if you can’t keep your promise (for example “the government will protect you”), then your overly reassuring comments will backfire and cost you valuable public confidence.
2. Reveal what isn’t known, but how you are gathering facts in real time to inform decisions. Help the public understand the nature of mother nature. At the same time, stomp out rumors, speculation and pure misinformation. Already the rumor mills are churning, and it will take ongoing monitoring and engagement in traditional and social media channels to help people know what is true and what isn’t.
3. Let the public know that what is the best decision for today may change tomorrow, or the day after, as new facts about the outbreak come to light. So when new directions are taken mid-crisis, it doesn’t mean the former decisions were necessarily wrong.
4. Manage public expectations for CSI-fast testing results. Laboratory testing and science-based public health procedures take time in the real world. The television watching public may be impatient for facts and test results and we must temper their expectations.
5. Ask more of people. No one can stop a pandemic from happening. But everyone has a role to play in reducing the spread of illness. The steps seem ridiculously simple, but they are the time tested actions that help contain illnesses: wash your hands often, use your arm or sleeve to cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home when you are sick.
Linda Weinberg is a Senior Vice President of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide’s Emergency Risk Communications Group and specializes in crisis and emergency communications.