Five Coronavirus Crisis Communications Lessons That Apply To Politics & Business Alike
By: Brian Walsh
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, several of the nation’s governors have risen to the occasion and offered important lessons in crisis communications leadership that can be applied equally in both the political and corporate worlds.
According to recent polls, in Ohio 85 percent of voters approve of Governor Mike DeWine’s handling of the pandemic, while in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response have given him record approval ratings in that state. While the two politicians are very different in their personalities and political ideologies, each has been successful in following a number of key principles for communicating in a crisis.
Here are our top five:
Be Prepared & Proactive
- Preparation is key to crisis management and it applies equally to both your planning in anticipation of a crisis and how you communicate in real-time. Long before a full-blown crisis is at your doorstep, companies and organizations should conduct deep dives into risk factors and areas of vulnerability, while identifying a crisis management team of key decision-makers that execute crisis drills to game out approaches to unforeseen events. This will help ensure that when and if a crisis hits, the entire team operates from the same playbook.
- It’s also critical to look over the horizon and be proactive in leading, instead of sitting back and responding. In Ohio, for example, DeWine was among the first to cancel large capacity events even before his state had a single confirmed case of coronavirus. In New York, Cuomo made his first public statement about COVID-19 on January 24, one day after Chinese authorities sealed off Wuhan City, the epicenter of the disease.
Be Consistent & Straightforward
- In analyzing DeWine’s response to the pandemic, The Washington Post noted that there is a “no-nonsense, high-fact way in which DeWine has delivered his daily dose of bad news. He frequently cites the advice of public health professionals. He doesn’t mention politics. He shows his concern about the impact of his choices, which he has acknowledged could be devastating for the economy. He sugarcoats nothing.”
- There is an old communications adage – the more you say, the more you stray. If you’re saying different things to different people or different media outlets, you’re going to get in trouble. So be clear, consistent and concise in delivering your message across multiple communications platforms. Stay in control and stop when you’re finished.
Be Transparent & Honest
- Put simply, DeWine and others have been successful to date because they communicate what they know, use data to support their arguments and don’t speculate or mislead about what they don’t know.
- There have been many political and corporate case studies over the years demonstrating the power of truth and transparency. Many people are willing to forgive mistakes if they get an explanation for why it occurred. That doesn’t necessitate sharing every single data point, but it does mean a level of acknowledgement and corrective action to make sure it does not happen again.
Be Empathetic & Relatable
- Whatever your political allegiances, even longtime supporters of DeWine and Cuomo would privately acknowledge that neither would win a charisma contest, and both have had their detractors over the years. But in recent weeks, both have demonstrated their personal understanding of the tremendous toll – medical, economic and otherwise, that the crisis has taken on their fellow citizens. They’ve delivered the bad news with acknowledgment that it is in fact bad news, but that all their state’s residents are in it together.
- This is a very scary time for many Americans and they are looking for leadership. It’s impossible to observe how voters in Ohio and New York have responded to their governors without tying it to their decision to take ultimate responsibility for the decisions that are being made.
- When Cuomo received blowback for closing non-essential businesses in March, he said point blank, “If someone wants to blame someone, blame me. There is no one else responsible for this decision.” And when protestors demonstrated in Ohio, DeWine said clearly, “Any complaints about the policy of this administration need to be directed at me. I am the office holder and I appointed the director. Ultimately, I am responsible for the decisions in regard to the coronavirus. The buck stops with me.”
- This same lesson applies to corporations as well where there is ultimately one person in charge, the CEO. Even if they weren’t the ones who made the mistake in question, it occurred on their watch and people want to hear the person in charge take responsibility. It’s not often easy, but it will be respected and invariably rewarded.
When a crisis occurs, having the proper resources and the right team at hand is critical. PLUS works with organizations to develop tactics, plans and materials that can be easily adopted and that allow organizations to quickly activate at a moment’s notice.
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