As the virus rages through the world, companies are focused on getting the relevant messages across to workers, employees, customers, vendors, and shareholders. IMMedia Senior Editor Kasey Clark recently wrote an insightful piece here on best practices for how companies should handle this communication. 

But governments and public agencies face an equally challenging task – that of reassuring the public, imparting useful information on precautions to take, and communicating the science in the most effective manner. No easy feat! 

Here, we offer some tips on how public-sector agencies and even governments dealing with larger communities and the public should handle crisis communication. 

Use simple messages 

The first thing to remember is that people take in information very differently during a crisis. As a public-sector official, you need to think hard about how to change the way you usually communicate with your community or the general public. The mental stress and anxiety are huge factors in how people might receive your communication and act on it. And as many societies around the world have recently discovered, cooperation and response can be the difference between life and death. 

Ensure that your messages are simple and easy to follow. Stress hampers the brain’s ability to process information, and a complex message may leave people confused about what the current situation means and what people need to do. Upon reading your communication, people must know very clearly: 

  • What is the course of action? What do you want me to do? 
  • What does this threat mean for me and my loved ones? 
  • What measures are you [the public authority] taking to mitigate or manage this crisis? 
  • What does this mean for my life? For example, can I go to work? Can my kids go to school? 

Show empathy

“Empathy is the door that opens your voice to the information that you want to communicate. So if people can perceive that you actually care about them in a genuine, human way, I think they’re much more willing to listen to anything else that you have to say. If you don’t do that, you have really lost your audience because people won’t listen to you.” – Dr Julie Gerberding, Director, CDC SARS, 2003

In both verbal and written communication, make sure you acknowledge the pain and discomfort that your community is going through at this time. Use inclusive terms in your messaging for example, “We need to stay home to ensure that we’re safe” versus “You need to stay home”. 

It’s a subtle but important distinction in tone. Here’s another example:

  • “Please don’t visit your elderly relatives or parents at this time, as you might endanger their health.” 

versus

  • “You are not allowed to visit your parents at this time, as they are more vulnerable.” 

Be the first source of information immediacy matters 

In a time (like now) when the situation is evolving on a daily basis, share information as soon as possible. For example, the Ministry of Health in Singapore was releasing new infection numbers at midnight, once all the details were available and verified. But the ministry soon realised that people were anxiously waiting for these numbers late into the night. 

The Ministry began releasing these numbers much earlier in the day, asking the public to wait for the detailed breakdown that followed later in the day. If the information is not coming from a credible source, then people tend to look elsewhere, such as social media channels. And these may be less reliable sources of information. 

Be open and honest about what you don’t know 

Being open and honest is probably the most oft-cited mantra about communication. But truthful communication is not limited to the risks of the crisis or the level of preparedness. What you don’t know is equally important. 

Be careful about what you promise. Covid-19, for example, is an evolving situation, and many answers are emerging as we go along. There are still many factors we simply don’t know yet. When will the economy open up? Will there be a second wave in the winter? Will schools open? 

As a public official, if you don’t have some of these answers, it’s best to be truthful about that but to offer some insights into the work that is going on behind the scenes to get clarity on these questions. 

Crisis communication is tough to get right; evolving situations, the anxiety levels of the community or the public at large is unpredictable — yet like with all communication mantras, you must try and get the basics right.