Communications key to managing health, medical emergencies

“A pandemic is a communications emergency as much as a medical crisis.”

The premise of that core Epidemic Intelligence Service principle quoted in a recent New Yorker article is this: communicate quickly to stop a virus becoming a pandemic.

Globally, scientists and governments had the challenge of convincing locals to respond with urgency to a mysterious virus in China.

As part of its crisis strategy, Seattle’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used actions as its primary communications tool to influence immediate behavioural changes. It closed schools – which forced many parents to stay home and communicated the seriousness to the broader community – and asked Microsoft, a massive Seattle-area employer, to send employees home to work remotely, which Microsoft could do with ease.

These swift communications actions resulted in the community becoming early adopters of health orders, and as such, COVID-19 remained manageable in Seattle.

Actions speak loudly

As we learned through our collective unpreparedness, COVID-19 was also a communications emergency of its own kind – and possibly its own making – for businesses across all industries.

Scientists amplified the importance of pre-crisis playbooks and using actions as critical communications channels in both crisis and business recovery plans. Actions must be audited, designed and deliberate. Like scientists, business must ask:

•What will your actions communicate?

•What will you communicate about your actions?

•What actions will you use to communicate?

The new playbook

As someone once said, and as many organizations learned: “hope is not a strategy.”

Under the world’s “new norm,” good leaders are readying for the next wave of the pandemic and planning for other crisis scenarios that may have an impact on their business.

By asking “what if” questions, businesses can identify – and possibly correct – vulnerabilities before they become a crisis. After all, it is easier to stop something than repair the damage.

In 2017 in Chicago, when a passenger was dragged bleeding from a United Airlines jet for refusing to volunteer his seat, the airline experienced an overnight loss of US$1 billion on the stock market. Had United tested its policies, it may have realized that, at some point during seat reassignment, it relinquishes control to police who owe nothing to the airline’s reputation.

Brave leadership

Most leaders make tough decisions; brave leaders communicate those decisions. Just as in wartime, citizens rely on leaders for information and hope. During this pandemic, research showed that internal and external stakeholders wanted to hear from executives quickly, especially if the news was bad, because information brings relief. Nobody likes to be kept in the dark.

Under the new norm, we’ll see more visible leadership, as senior executives communicate regularly with their communities. The new style of leadership requires greater transparency, honesty and timely communication, all of which help engage employees, increase loyalty and trust, align all parties, prevent the spread of misinformation and ultimately show that you care enough to stay connected.

Two-way communication

Another lesson the pandemic taught us is that two-way communication is important to employees, especially because working remotely is a new reality for many. To feel connected and informed, employees want access to managers so that they can ask questions, express concerns and feel included.

Crisis team

As we learned through this pandemic, in a crisis, speed matters. If you haven’t already done it, organize a crisis team that includes people from three key areas – operations, technology and communication – along with someone from human resources, legal, and an experienced crisis communications expert. Unlike general public relations, crisis communication is specialized and requires a different mindset and skill set.

Don’t gamble your bottom line and reputation. Spend money now on planning so that next time, your business can mobilize quickly, manage fear and mitigate damage. •

Renu Bakshi (renu@renubakshi.com) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis audits, crisis management and media training.