We are living through history, and it is a new reality for many of us. After years of being a CDC-certified crisis and emergency risk communicator, and running table-top pandemic scenarios for local public health officials, hospital staffs, and first responders, I wish our country was more prepared. Our worst-case scenario planning fell short compared to this reality, but it was a start.
The COVID-19 pandemic will change so many things for so many people. Yet there are a few things we can and must do, and ways where communication can help us.
There is a saying in risk communications, "You don't rise to the level of the situation, you sink to the level of your training." This newsletter is my effort to share what we know to help build your skills. Use what seems useful to you now, and reach out to us if you need help, or just a thinking partner.
Kelly Ferrara, President
P.S. Be warned: There is a lot of text below. Once I started, I just kept going.
Stand Down, Up, or Out?
This isn't business as usual. Brands need to critically assess if it is their time to stand down, up, or out. What I mean is this:
Stand down your typical social media posts and share what is useful and usable for those you serve. The same goes for advertising, PR, and marketing efforts.
Stand up if you need help. Are you a nonprofit and supplies are low? Share that. Are you a small business and concerned? Tell us. There is a great Facebook page for St. Louis businesses for this exact purpose - #314Together. I'm sure there are others globally doing the same work.
Stand out by being human and centering on overall values. Many of you are not working. Many of you are at home. Let your personal brand shine through. Stay home. Be kind to others. Breathe.
The phrase "lived experience" is taking on new meanings for each of us under the fog of a pandemic. No one needs to know all the particular stresses of everyone else. But everyone needs to know that no one is immune to stress right now.
Be gracious. Be as straightforward as possible with your team. Speak your truth and, where possible, allow team members to speak theirs. Start with the open-hearted and open-minded point of view that we are each trying to do our best. And demonstrate grace when you come across someone for whom it is all just too much.
Fear and uncertainty will be with us for a while. Yet love, grace, and compassion are always with us. Show yours.
Stay Connected, Keep Engaging
Staying connected during this time of distancing is both difficult, and so very necessary. This is true not only for individuals, but also for organizations and companies.
As public engagement professionals and facilitators, Heather and I often help clients gather people together at in-person meetings, to share information and seek their participation in a process or decision. Right now, that is simply not an option. So, how can we keep conversations going, people engaging, and groups working together?
Considering how to do meaningful public engagement during this time is top of mind for us as we seek the best options for all of our clients. We are both active members of an international professional association (IAP2), and are learning with and from colleagues around the world as we all seek the best ways to engage remotely with audiences. Some tips to step up your digital game are listed below.
Use webinars over conference calls.
Encourage people to use their video cameras for the webinars where possible -- it will build the connections we all desire. Seeing participants provides you with the eye contact and nonverbal communication cues we would normally experience.
Many webinar platforms have polling tools. Use this engagement strategy intentionally to drive participation. You can ask work-related questions and whimsical questions to humanize this shared experience.
Loads of online tools have been built out in the past several years focused on stakeholder engagement and alternative ways to engage. We've researched some of these on your behalf. Connect with Kelly or Heather for more information on what may work for you.
Lastly, what was true before the pandemic is true during the pandemic. Your messages are still your messages. It is the landscape that has shifted -- the space where those messages live. Revise your approach and maintain engagement with employees, stakeholders, and members of the public by asking yourself "what is it they most need from me right now?"
Psychology of a Crisis
In teaching risk communication, there is an entire chapter on the psychology of a crisis. It was always my favorite chapter to teach. It is foundational to all the other pieces, and when explored thoroughly by a class, it sets the tone for how they perform in the table-top exercises that follow. Here is what we know to be true.
First messages carry more weight. Once an idea has a foothold in the public mind, it is hard to replace that first message. So speak the truth, frequently and plainly. And when things change, explain why.
Clear communication is a resource multiplier. One spokesperson, one article, one newscast, or one blog post can't sufficiently communicate during a crisis. Things are moving swiftly, changing rapidly, and we can all help. Share content with your family, friends, and networks that is relevant and timely, as well as from a reliable source. My go-to resources for the COVID-19 pandemic are the free daily New York Times newsletter, (You can find it here) and the posts from my local paper STLToday.com.
Information reduces anxiety. When people can name a problem, they can solve a problem. And while I can't explain the run on toilet paper, I can tell you that sharing credible and actionable information with your circles of influence can yield positive results in reducing anxiety and stress. During a crisis, statistics will lag and anecdotes will rule. Be smart and understand the difference.
Time and space matter. The best graphic I've seen on this entire event was in the Washington Post. You can find it here. It defines social distancing and demonstrates the impact it can have. There simply is not a person among us who shouldn't be sheltering in place. And yes, the virus may not be reported in your neighborhood, town, or county, but it is in your state and nature abhors a vacuum. This virus needs a vacuum - a space with no human-to-human contact where it can no longer spread. Click the link above. Trust me. Be well.