When a crisis of any kind hits, the goal has always been the same: put it into the past as quickly as possible.

You establish your organization as the most authoritative source of credible information about the crisis and you own its narrative by living the mantra “tell it first, fast and honestly.”

But COVID-19 hasn’t just infected people, it’s infected crisis communications. While there had been precedents, COVID-19 solidified and accelerated conditions that crisis communicators must now strategically factor in when communicating in any crisis. These conditions are…

  1. Everything is now politicized
  2. Trust of experts and institutions has been seriously eroded
  3. The public is increasingly confused, fearful and outraged
  4. The spread of misinformation is rampant

Everything is Politicized.

A recent NIH study found that politicians appeared in COVID newspaper coverage more frequently than scientists, and that the high degree of politicization in initial COVID-19 coverage “may have contributed to polarization in U.S. COVID-19 attitudes.”

Politicization doesn’t just come from major political parties. It now also arises from the various groups representing political agendas based on gender, religion, race, class, age, and so on. These multi-faceted political agendas have been intensified by COVID-19, especially when charges are justifiably made by some groups that they have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic.

But amped up politics will continue to plague crisis communicators as they communicate in any kind of crisis. Look what happened recently to Burger King after it ran ads for a scholarship program to encourage more women chefs, but the company tried to get clicks with a provocative, but, as it turns out, ill-conceived headline that brought down much ire. The headline read, “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” The social media blowback from women’s groups was so terrible and swift that Burger King was forced into a major brand crisis and finally withdrew its ads.

Politics will now swirl around just about any crisis you might have. So, strive for communications that are based on a clear understanding not only of the science but of the nature of people’s and various identity groups’ perceptions of that science. Their perceptions are more heavily influenced by politics than ever before, so some amount of political blowback to your messaging is inevitable and must be planned for.

People Don’t Trust the Experts.

During COVID, politics and politicized supporters in mainstream and social media continuously feed the notion that experts are not to be trusted. Study after study confirms that people’s trust in experts and their institutions has eroded, putting the public’s trust of experts at an all-time low.

Making the problem of expert mistrust worse is that experts look at a risk such as COVID, and think of it in statistical terms, probabilities of infection rates, etc. Generally speaking, they place a lower priority on human emotions, such as fear and outrage, and may even ignore those emotions altogether. By leading with cold numbers that can frighten people rather than with their humanity, experts undermine their credibility and effectiveness of their crisis messaging.

The antidote to COVID-amplified mistrust of experts is found in Risk Communication, a well-researched discipline that has established guidelines for communicating on a subject like COVID, a crisis that is both scientific and at the same time freighted with highly emotional public sentiment. 

One risk communication principle stipulates that you must begin all expert communications by first projecting humanity. Project humanity by voicing empathy, asking questions, sharing related personal experience before presenting hard data. Your humanness disarms audiences and their media-fueled reluctance to absorb, let alone follow, expert advice.

Experts must also be well-practiced in delivering key messages in media-friendly sound bytes. Even if your organization has, say, irate customers erroneously blaming your product for causing them harm, the experts who can accurately demonstrate why the product isn’t harmful can only be successful if they can authentically project their humanity along with technical facts presented in a manner consistent with risk communication principles.

Experts need to be media trained to do all this. Sending an expert out in a crisis situation to speak on your organization’s behalf who begins their presentation with a complex chart rather than an expression of empathy will do more harm than good.

We Communicate with a Highly Emotional Public.

Confusion, fear, anger, outrage. Rapidly changing COVID messaging has been contorting the public in all directions for well over a year. But other science-, technology-, or medically related crises, will of course occur in the future. From climate change to a toxic release to a cyberattack, etc. — to be successful, communications in these crises will have to play by the new rules forced on us by COVID.

Risk research has identified a number of factors that contribute to public anxiety in a crisis, and the pandemic exploited these so-called outrage factors in spades. Factors include: The virus is not observable. The full extent of its effects are unknown to victims. There are delayed effects. It’s a new risk that’s less studied. Your risk is largely involuntary. The risk is unfairly distributed, i.e., not equitable.

Risk Communication principles again are part of the communications solution in these situations of high risk and high public anxiety answering questions such as how do you communicate a statistical danger to a scientifically illiterate, anxious public?

Successful risk communication reduces public anxiety by first listening to that anxiety. Humane people listen, and anxious people who are listened to calm down. Through strategic listening you can often find common ground with your audiences, reducing their anxiety and thereby improving chances they will absorb your crisis messages.

Mechanisms for listening could include strategic engagement with social media, an 800 number, public exhibits, surveys, focus groups, or forming Community Advisory Panels (CAPs) from respected members of the group you’re communicating with.

Related: PX Podcast – Communicating During Crises – An interview with Molly McPherson

Misinformation is Everywhere.

Pandemic-related misinformation coursed through both social and mainstream media and reinforced the scourge of fake news. Misinformation ranged from the top down and back up again — from a president suggesting that ingesting bleach might help stem the viral onslaught to mainstream news outlets reinforcing anti-mask wearing to the crazy conspiracy theories promoted on social media.

It’s now incumbent on crisis communicators to be more vigilant than ever before in continually monitoring social media and mainstream media to identify and quickly correct any misinformation that could degrade their crisis communications. There are apps that help monitor and flag this misinformation, whether inadvertent or intentional. False info could be coming from foreign governments, hackers, malicious political operatives, ignorant sources, conspiracy theorists, etc., but wherever it comes from it’s highly destructive and will worsen any crisis. Vigilantly monitoring and engaging strategically to correct or remove misinformation is key to successful crisis management.

The Future of Crisis Communications is Now

Driven in large measure by the global pandemic, the new atmosphere of politicization; mistrust of experts; an anxious public; and rampant misinformation must now be among the chapters in the crisis communicator’s operating manual. And they’ll have to be followed when devising all crisis communications moving forward, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is a relic of the past. While COVID’s legacy of death and destruction will long endure, so too will the changes in crisis communication and media relations that it brought with it.

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To learn more about how COVID-19 has changed crisis management and media relations and how you must incorporate its lessons into your crisis communications, sign up now for the course Principles of Crisis Media Relations.

David Kalson
David Kalson

David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)