One message, one voice

Latest blog: The voice of reason

Shippensburg University in December, 1999, gave an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the leading U.S. scientific voice on the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

In selecting commencement speakers and individuals to receive an honorary degree, university leaders looked for individuals who have made extraordinary contributions in their respective fields and who have had a significant impact on the world.

 

Dr. Fauci’s selection was an easy one. He was honored for his work  in combating AIDS. In the 1980s, his research into the disease was known worldwide as was his advocacy for continued scientific studies.

 

I was chair of the Commencement Committee and had the privilege to work with Dr. Fauci before his visit and hosted him while he was on campus. During his visit he was a consummate professional who, in addition to receiving the degree, shared his knowledge, experiences and wisdom with the graduates and a field house packed with their families and friends. He was very unassuming and was humble in his acceptance of the degree.

 

Several years later, the university had a cluster of meningitis cases at the start of the fall semester. University leadership called Dr. Fauci for advice. He graciously provided information and guidance we needed to ensure the safety of the students and the campus community.

 

Since then, he has been at the forefront of confronting other diseases such as SARS, the swine flu and Ebola.

 

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in the U.S., he has been the voice of reason, of science, and of truth. His calming demeanor, his ease in explaining the science to non-scientists, and his no-nonsense way of telling people how to solve the problem give us hope that there will be an end to this.

 

When he talks, I listen. When he gives advice, I take it. Our country is blessed to have him at the scientific helm of this battle.

 

 

The Washington Post profiled him recently in this article: https://wapo.st/3djiZjQ. The Post also did a story on how Dr. Fauci handles the misinformation that is presented during the administrations's briefings.: https://wapo.st/2UtrRuS.

 

It gives a fascinating insight into Dr. Fauci and where we go from here.

What to remember in a crisis

From the federal government to local government, from higher education to basic education, crises seem to be the norm. These crises appear and disappear almost daily. Some may have lasting impact on our country while others are more localized in their effect.

 

From a crisis communication perspective, these are professionally interesting and present an opportunity for those of us in the field to rethink how we approach a crisis and how we can more effectively assist our clients during such difficult times.

 

Here are some basic tips I give to help them:

  • Think about what can go wrong/Never underestimate the possibility of something going wrong. You may think a crisis can't happen to you, but it can…and probably will. You can't plan for every eventuality, but you can plan for the most common ones.

  • Prepare a crisis response plan. The time to manage a crisis is before the crisis starts.

  • Designate a spokesperson. One person speaking for the organization ensures that the message will be consistent and on point.

  • Establish a relationship with media. This will enable them to know they can contact you when needed and that they can trust you.

  • Have a good working relationship with everyone in your operation. One disgruntled employee can ruin all of your other efforts during a crisis.

  • Ask advice from others who have been through it. More than likely someone, somewhere has gone through what you’re going through.

 

Most of all, remember that a crisis is an opportunity to show what your values are and to show the true heart of your organization.

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If there is one truism in crisis communications it is this: One message, one voice.

 

Every organization, public or private, will, at some time, have a crisis. How that organization, especially its leadership, responds has an indelible impact on the organization’s reputation and in its service to its citizens, its customers or its members.

 

A primary goal of any communication response to a crisis is to quickly and effectively provide information the various constituencies need and want. All responses should also be guided by the belief that whatever is done is done because it is the right thing to do, not the right thing to protect the organization and its leaders.

 

The fundamental way to do that is through a unified message. The same message repeated in different ways in different mediums. The same message, changing as needed, but always one that is well planned and well executed.

 

When messages become garbled or mixed or even contradicted, it leaves the public wondering about the organization’s effectiveness to handle the crisis and about its commitment to them.

 

We’ve all learned some valuable tips through personal experience, working with our colleagues or watching others handle various crises. Some things to remember:

  • Prepare a crisis response plan and have an emergency response team.

  • Designate a spokesperson. This will be the point person for all communications, will centralize release of all information and ensure the organization’s message is clear.

  • Be first with the information. If there’s a problem, tell people.

  • Be honest. If you lie, they will catch you. That’s especially true in a world in which search engines abound and information is readily accessible.

  • Be accurate with the information. Don’t wing it. No one can be an expert on everything. A smart leader knows when to let others, who are experts in their field, speak.

 

Communication is an ever-evolving field. Technology has obviously changed, perhaps even revolutionized, crisis communications in recent years. But the field has also been forced to respond to societal changes brought on by that same technology. Society is more interconnected than ever and that means our use of a specific communications method is based as much on its emotional and psychological impact as on its effectiveness.

 

But as important as technology is during a crisis never forget: All crises are, ultimately, about people, and every effort must be made to respond appropriately and sensitively.

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