I recently received a series of text messages from my 28-year-old son who lives in New York City. He was asking whether he should stock up on food and water in case NYC gets quarantined due to the coronavirus.

Frankly, I found his question a bit strange. Just the day before, I listened to a press conference with the New York governor, the NYC mayor and other public health officials. Their message had no mention of preparing for a quarantine. Rather, I found it to be a thoughtful, measured and factual discussion on the status of a few infected people among the millions of people who live in the greater NYC area. I detected a purposeful attempt to quiet fears and to say to the public, “We’re on top on this.”

When I asked my son where he was getting his news and if he heard the government officials’ advice, he replied, “Do you mean I should believe the politicians?”

Later that evening, the NYC news reports on COVID-19 included stories of people panic-buying personal protective devices and sanitizing wipes and lotions.

This gave me pause to reflect on the importance of communication in crisis management preparation, disaster response and recovery. While there may be truth to the saying “people are going to believe what they want to believe,” there are some trusted ways to be sure your communication gets it right.

Here are a few things to consider in your crisis communications:

  • Facts matter. When delivering information during crisis events, state only verified, reliable, fact-checked and supported information. Stay on message. As the facts become known, state them. Credibility matters; it’s not a time for speculation.In the days following the crash of EGYPTAIR Flight 990 in the Atlantic, rumors started circulating among victims’ families that their loved ones’ bodies were vulnerable to sharks. To address this, the NTSB confronted the issue head-on by bringing in a marine biologist. And yes, as uncomfortable as it was to hear, the victims’ bodies were in waters where sharks congregated. Despite this painful truth, the NTSB remained a trustworthy source.
  • The messenger. Consider who will deliver the messages. Are they believable? What reputation do they have? What pre-conceived perceptions do people have? It’s not surprising that advertisers use trusted celebrities to market and sell products. Spokespeople become the face of the product to generate feelings of trust. Crazy as it might sound, no matter the message, TV actors from fictional TV shows are more believable than spokespersons for companies or government officials.
  • The audience. Fit the media to the audience and consider using a variety of channels to communicate your message. I recently learned that I was the only family member who didn’t know about my nephew’s appearance on a national TV morning show. When I asked how everyone else knew, they said in unison, “Facebook.” Ouch, this Baby Boomer got taken to school!
  • Take charge of social media. The internet is full of fictional stories, half-truths unchecked data and harmful falsehoods, all of which can quickly spread. When a crisis occurs, it’s important to get in front of mistruths. The facts matter and will help reinforce your reputation as a reliable resource. Use social media as an important tool to communicate your message.
  • Be creative. I recently heard that Vietnam uses K-Pop stars and music to promote its messages. As reported from the Billboard website:
    “As the coronavirus continues to spread, governments are acting to keep their residents safe. Vietnam seems to have nailed the awareness strategy by releasing a wildly catchy PSA promoting preventative measures such as handwashing and sanitation … in collaboration with the National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health to explain how to protect yourself from the virus and boost public morale.”
  • Optics matter. When the passengers’ remains from Pan Am Flight 103 were flown back to the US from Lockerbie, Scotland, the plane parked next to a hanger in a secluded area restricted to friends and family members. Unfortunately, a previously hung sign remained, stating “Livestock Quarantine Area.” Regrettably, family members were repulsed by the indignity of their love one’s casket being off-loaded at such a spot.

Creating your COVID-19 message is unique to your organization and customers. FEI has the expertise and experience from “lessons learned” to help your organization create an effective communication strategy when disaster strikes.

FEI Behavioral Health has a distinguished history in providing crisis management and victim assistance solutions to organizations and can prepare and train senior leaders to avoid crisis management communication blunders. To learn more about how you can “be prepared for the unexpected,” please review our crisis management services.