On Tuesday, Governor Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts in response to the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. On Wednesday, I spent the day offering communications counsel to clients who were utterly confused as to whether and how the state of emergency applied to them. How big a public gathering is considered too big? Will conferences now scheduled for May be affected? Should Friday’s concert be canceled when much larger theater groups are sending e-mails to their audiences assuring them that their shows will go on?
The way that public officials communicate during this emergency is just as important to the effectiveness of containment strategies as contact tracing and quarantines. Poorly communicated information will be misunderstood. Refusing to answer questions leaves a vacuum that will be filled by someone else who may not know what they’re talking about. Both situations undermine efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. To date, White House communications to the crisis have been utterly chaotic.
We need the Baker administration to fill the void. Public health communications experts Dr. Jody Lanard and her husband, Peter Sandman, have advised governmental entities through outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Avian flu. They recommend three primary communication strategies during a large public crisis.
Be open and transparent in communicating risk. With Covid-19, the risk is death to many members of the community, and the potential collapse of local hospital systems. Massachusetts has already seen how vulnerable our health care system is. Nearly 7 percent of Berkshire Medical Center’s nursing staff is under quarantine after they came in contact with a handful of patients seeking treatment in early March for flu-like symptoms. At the time of the exposure, the hospital was operating in accordance with current guidelines (which have since been updated). The medical center has now contracted with a traveling nurse company to deal with the staffing shortage.
The only thing to be earned by downplaying risk is loss of the public’s trust. People do not want false assurance; they want to know that authorities are taking these risks to public health seriously.
Tell the public what to do, even if you don’t have all the answers. In the absence of authoritative guidance from the state, people are just making it up as they go along. In the school district where my wife works, a teacher canceled a long-planned school potluck celebration based on her understanding of what social distancing means. An administrator with a different definition overruled her so the event will take place as planned. Meanwhile, in Arlington, where I live, town leaders have convened an emergency task force with representatives across town government that meets daily. All school field trips, concerts, and plays have been canceled along with public events at the library and senior center. How will it be possible to slow the spread of the coronavirus if municipalities are operating with different understandings of what they should be doing?
Be willing to speculate. If you do not have enough information to answer a question, be willing to talk about the range of possibilities. When public officials do this, there is tremendous risk of being misquoted or having their remarks presented out of context. But that outcome is far less dangerous than what happens when authoritative sources create an information vacuum. Inevitably, someone less credible will speak with a reporter and fill the void with bad information.
The Baker administration can implement these communication strategies in two ways. First, it can be more transparent about risk and get better information to the public by shifting its message focus from individual risk to community risk. On Tuesday, Baker said that the “population we most want to reach now” are people over age 60 with underlying health conditions. Younger healthier people tuned out because the information is not relevant to them. The coronavirus is a threat to the entire community and every community member has a role to play in slowing its transmission.
Second, fill the information void. Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel was confident and informative during Tuesday’s press conference. Put her in front of the press every day at 4 p.m. when the new infection results are released. Let the press ask her anything and let her answer, even if she must speculate.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.
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