A crisis can bring out the best and worst in us — and in our leaders. In the weeks since the Coronavirus shutdown, Americans have experienced a crazy-quilt of messages from leadership at federal, state, and local levels. There are communications lessons about crisis leadership crisis in nearly every example.
So far, Congress has been battling over relief packages, and the White House daily briefings offer mixed messages. It’s the state and local executives who are winning the PR war. Governors and big-city mayors are in the strongest position to deliver clear, coherent communications and offer direction about the way forward. Here’s how the best communicators are navigating the crisis.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a mixed relationship with his own constituents and the local press. But lately he’s the surprise star of coronavirus communications. Cuomo’s style is sometimes abrasive, and his relentlessness can border on bullying. But what seems like bluster and dogmatism on an ordinary day rises to resolute leadership when people are frightened and uncertain. Cuomo’s daily updates on measures to contain the spread of the virus at its U.S. epicenter are clear, coherent, and decisive. As his frequent adversary, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten explains, “This is a moment he was really built for.”
“No-nonsense, high-fact” is how the Washington Post described Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s style in managing the pandemic in his state. DeWine won praise for his quick decision to shut down schools, restaurants, and, most controversially, the state primary election. He relies heavily on the advice of public health professionals and is straightforward in delivering his “daily dose of bad news.” DeWine explains his style this way; “I have a basic belief that if you have the right facts you’re probably going to make the right decision.”
His choice may have been unpopular with some, but the president made a good move in putting the vice president in charge of the nation’s coronavirus response. In a crisis situation, the lines of reporting and lanes of responsibility must be clear. Unfortunately, since Pence was tapped to manage the pandemic response, those lines have blurred. It’s often hard to tell who’s in charge. Leadership communications is also about accountability. By contrast, when asked to explain his decision to shut down the biggest city in the country, New York’s Cuomo famously said, “I accept full responsibility. If someone is unhappy, somebody wants to blame someone, people complain about someone, blame me.” No politician is truly above politics, but it’s a strong communication of priorities and accountability.
Cuomo has been effective in reminding us that a private healthcare system has limited capacity to handle the kind of surge that a pandemic causes. He was also masterful in outlining why he continues to urge the president to act upon the Defense Production Act. Cuomo wants Trump to take action to mobilize and coordinate production of needed protective gear, test reagents, and other materials to help states manage a surge of ill patients. Here he invokes the nation’s World War II response as an analogy to the current situation.
The first rule of effective crisis communications it to offer accurate and timely information. When the facts are changing on a daily basis and public cooperation is crucial, credibility isn’t just the main thing; it’s the only thing. Consistent updates are particularly important in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, where there is no real end in sight and everything hinges on getting people to follow the rules.
One key to success in a health emergency is to stick to your own expertise. In most cases leaders must rely on independent experts, but too many public opinions can lead to chaos. This is why the White House briefings have been confusing and incoherent, resulting in different messages from the president and members of his own pandemic team. When urging public calm and a “we’re in this together” spirit, it’s best to synthesize public health advice and communicate it with one voice.
Back to Cuomo, who has at times been awkwardly emotional in sharing his worries. He fretted publicly about his elderly mother and his adult daughter after she was potentially exposed to the virus. But again, in the current situation, it works. Things are changing fast and the headlines around the COVID-19 situation are at times alarming. It helps to know your concerns are shared and that our leaders have the same priorities we do. Then there’s that extra dose of humanity – and humor – when the governor connects with his little brother Chris Cuomo of CNN live on-air and banters about which is their mom’s favorite. Who can’t identify with that?