Four Things I’m Taking with Me When I Leave COVID-19 Behind
May 17, 2021
When I sat in the G290 Public Information Officer Training a few years ago, the idea of navigating an infectious outbreak seemed so foreign. I suppose I just assumed that it would be an isolated Ebola scare or a really bad flu season. But, here we are, marking more than a year with COVID-19. It’s been a tumultuous, uncertain, and—I’ll freely admit—often frightening time. If I’m honest, though, many of us marked a year with COVID-19 during late January. I got my first media call about this on January 24, 2020, and we had activated our emergency team for the event by that next Monday.
As public information officer (PIO) for the commonwealth’s hospitals, that meant that, for me and some of my colleagues, the pandemic started way earlier than March 6 (the day of the first announced case in Pennsylvania). I remember in vivid detail last week of January feeling the creeping unease that comes from knowing that this was, in fact, going to be the “big one.”
For much of the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to reflect. Instead, we were in autopilot, moving from a coordination meeting to a call with a member to help them navigate announcing a potential positive at their hospital. The myriad news stories about marking a year of COVID-19 have caused many of us to stop and think about where were went, how we got here, and how far we’ve come.
With herd immunity hopefully on the horizon, I’m eager to leave COVID-19 behind. There are, however, some lessons I’m taking with me instead.
We are communicating with our family, friends, and neighbors. All of them.
COVID-19’s far-reaching impacts underscored a simple fact. At the heart of every crisis is a person who just wants to know two things: Am I/are we okay? How can I/we be okay?
Our job as communicators during a crisis is to ensure that media outlets—and, in turn, their audiences—have the information they need to navigate an uncertain time. I always like to prep our spokespeople to be able to explain the situation to their child or a neighbor who doesn’t have a health care background. If we can’t unpack it in those terms, we need to go back to the drawing board.
The messages we deliver need to be easy to digest and synthesize and consider:
- Access and functional needs
- The predominant languages of the communities we serve
- Religious beliefs that may drive or deter consuming certain types of media
- Access to or availability of internet service
Additionally, during a crisis, our messaging may be general, but we cannot isolate outreach. As we work to engender trust in our communications, we must continue—at all times—to make sure that our outreach takes into account the intersection of demographics, including race/ethnicity, sex/gender, sexual preference, religion, economics, and geography.
Information transparency is king.
We can talk all day about the pros and cons of incident command structure or how best to stand up your information center, but there’s one thing to remember: communicators should be fully briefed. At all times. Full stop. It’s a lot easier to invite your PIO or communications team to a meeting and let them know what’s fair game and what’s off limits, than it is to go back and forth playing a frenzied game of telephone every time a reporter calls.
To that end, communicators should make sure that their relationships with their media partners include explicit guidelines about:
- Privacy policies
- Requirements for on-site coverage
- Check-ins about when updates and new information may be forthcoming
- Any changes to logistics that could impact how they cover your facility or the incident
- The chain of command for who to contact (in case someone gets sick or needs a day off)
Spokespeople should be trained and ready, and no one person should be keeper of all the information. Especially with something as disruptive and dangerous as COVID-19, many of us spent a lot of time worrying about who would get sick next. Making sure that there is more than one person who is fully briefed and prepped will go a long way to bolstering your crisis response.
The messenger is just as—if not more—important as the message itself.
When Marshall McLuhan theorized during the 1960s that the medium was the message, he surely didn’t have a pandemic in mind. His advice, however, is as fresh and enduring as ever.
During a crisis like COVID-19, we found that it was more important than ever to have medical experts and frontline health care workers be our messengers. These individuals were rightly lauded for their heroism and trusted for their knowledge of the virus. Their stories were authentic and their words carried special weight.
As we enter this new phase of our COVID-19 response—vaccinating a vast majority of our population—our health care providers continue to be the trusted voices patients seek. Our health care providers—in partnership with community leaders—are uniquely able to communicate the value of getting the vaccine, answer any questions patients might have, and build faith that these vaccines are safe and effective. They have a deep understanding of the science, longstanding relationships with their patients, and the ability to have one-on-one conversations in a way that press conferences just can’t achieve.
For their service during the pandemic, and now the work of building continuous trust in the vaccine, we owe our health care workers a true debt of gratitude.
Take time to be kind to each other—and yourself.
Too often during a crisis, we just seem to forget that we are human. We get into this strange autopilot of dread, adrenaline, and stoicism—we are, after all, here to support the caregivers who are on the front lines. But in doing so, we often push aside the fact that the stories we are sharing and the news we are delivering is about real and frightening things.
Additionally, we need to center people in everything we do. We need to constantly consider the intersections of identity—race/ethnicity, sex/gender, religion, economic means, geography—in our messages, and understand that no one group is a monolith. That may seem daunting for some, but centering our crisis response in kindness and compassion goes a long way.
Finally, we need to show grace to ourselves. No matter how well we plan for a crisis, things move fast. We need to extend the compassion that we are showing to others to the person in the mirror. There will be time for after-action reports to tell us the ways that we can improve our performance during a crisis, but these reviews are not a time to beat ourselves up. It is an opportunity for us—as humans—to grow and get better for the next time.
While the vaccines present cause for great optimism, we will emerge from this crisis changed by a pandemic year. It will take time for each of us to recover from the last year and find our own new normal. The lessons we have learned about how to be effective communicators during this extraordinary time offer us the rare opportunity to reset and focus on compassion, honesty, and humanity.