Communicating COVID-19: Be Empathetic.

Dr. Barbara Reynolds shares lessons from 27 years as the CDC’s Senior Advisor of Crisis and Risks Communications

In 1997, Dr. Barbara Reynolds was deployed to Hong Kong in response to H5N1. At the time, H5N1—also known as “bird flu”—had most of the makings of a pandemic. It was new, so no one had immunity. It was virulent: for every two people infected with the bird flu, one died. What Reynolds hoped to discover was the third and final trait of a pandemic: Was it easily spread?

But working in communications, Reynolds quickly stumbled into a larger problem. “It was a big wake-up call for me,” she tells SchoolCEO, “because I was trying to figure out, as a communications professional: How in the world do I talk to people about this kind of threat?

The experience changed her. “It became my life's work to try to figure out how best to talk to people when their lives have been turned upside down,” she explains. So Reynolds and her colleagues developed Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC), a framework for communicating through emergency situations. The framework has since been adopted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Since then, Reynolds has served as a crisis communications consultant for the European Union, France, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, former Soviet Union nations, the Middle East, Asia, NATO, and the World Health Organization. From 1991 to 2018, she served the CDC as Crisis and Risk Communications Senior Advisor, providing guidance during the anthrax attacks, and the SARS, H1N1, and Ebola outbreaks. We caught up with Reynolds on March 26 to find out her communication tips for school leaders.

CERC is a roadmap for how to talk to people in a crisis that's meant for people who have to make hard decisions with imperfect information in tough time constraints. We're trying to give best practices on how to communicate to people when everything's been turned upside down, and also to show organizations or individuals how to protect their credibility so that people will listen to them. Good communication in a crisis could actually save lives and help manage resources in a more positive way.

For example, when you're going to give people information, be first—because the first message carries the most weight. And when you do share it, you want to be right. Make sure your information is correct, and then be credible.

We also want you to be empathetic in your messaging, recognizing the emotions that people are feeling in that situation, even if you may not be feeling them. Acknowledge their emotions and challenges in the event.

Then, provide action. What we know is that people can manage their anxiety and detrimental emotions better if they are contributing in some way. So give people things to do—hopefully things that are helpful to the response.

And then the other thing is: be respectful. That sounds like a catch-all, but it’s really important to respect people. It's a balance between acting pedantic or paternalistic, and speaking simply and forthrightly in a way that people can understand.

How have you seen leaders show empathy?

Empathy goes a long way. You don’t have to over-dramatize a situation, but you can at least acknowledge people's feelings, because what we know is that if they’re in a heightened state of emotion, they can’t hear your message. They're busy wondering: What if? Or, Do you understand how horrible this is for me, what I'm going through? So if you acknowledge in words that you understand how they're feeling, then they can calm down a little bit.

Here are some examples:

  • “Like you, we’re concerned about what we're hearing from China.”
  • “It's frustrating to not have all the answers in this uncertain time.”
  • “It's heartbreaking to see the devastation that has occurred.”

I sometimes find that leaders are reluctant to put emotional words in their messaging. They're afraid they're going to be rejected by the public. So I tell them to drop out the pronouns. Instead of saying, “I know you are afraid,” I just say, “I know some are afraid,” or “It's understandable that people might be fearful.” That way, you don't talk directly to the person listening or reading it. But if the person listening or reading is afraid, they’ll appreciate that you understand.

With the Ebola crisis, were you actively combating stigma?

Yes, we were, and it is something that you always have to be concerned about. I'm a social psychologist, so as I understand it—stigma is a societal issue. Individual people can be bigoted, but when a society starts to turn its back on or exclude a population group or profession solely because it identifies them with the risk, that’s stigma.

For example, SARS was generated out of China. I was in Oregon teaching CERC at the time, and local health officials there said that a lot of nail salons run primarily by Asian women were asking for help, because people didn't want to come to their salons anymore. In that situation, the Health Department could help by literally telling people to recognize that there was no more risk at those salons than in the general population. I think all officials in a crisis response have a responsibility to address and try to push down stigmatization.

Is there a place for two-way communications in a crisis?

Absolutely! That's really important, and it's much easier now that we have social media platforms. It's also a good way to help manage rumors and misinformation, but you have to be careful. You may pretend that you're doing two-way communications because you're pushing messages out through social media, but you also need to analyze what you're hearing back, and then adjust your message accordingly.

Generally, leaders being as visible as possible to the public in a crisis situation, concretely answering their concerns, is helpful. That's where the media can be very important to us, because now, through technology, people around the country can ask questions. Not every question is going to be perfect, but allowing people to ask their questions and get answers helps them have a sense of control. When things are uncertain, when you don't have a lot of answers, the one thing you can do is tell people the process that you are using to get those answers.

I think that’s being done well right now; we are being invited into the process. People are telling us what's going on and why they're doing what they're doing. You can’t get all the answers right now, but at least you know that people have your question and they're trying to get the answer.

If you’re getting hundreds of comments or questions, how do you decide which concerns are legitimate? Maybe there’s one very vocal person who’s skewing perceptions.

It's an art, not a science. Sometimes you’ll think somebody is a real outlier, but then you find out that people really do have that question or misunderstanding. You might think, Well, no one would be silly enough to believe such-and-such. But, in fact, if you don't have the expertise, that idea might make sense. So don't discount the weird questions, but don't spend a ton of time trying to answer them perfectly either. Just say, as quickly as possible, what needs to be done.

With Ebola, we [the CDC] would have online Facebook and Twitter chats. It felt like we were going through hundreds of questions in a couple hours with a bunch of experts. However, most organizations do not have the bandwidth for communications professionals in a crisis. That's where the media becomes so important in a response to a crisis, because they will have the responsibility to carry that message, and to carry it accurately.

What are some ways to build community hardiness?

After the Boston Marathon bombing, the motto “Boston Strong” was a perfect example. One of the roles that leaders have in a crisis situation is to help strengthen resilience and ask more of people—ask them to be their best selves. Sometimes rallying around a mascot or a motto, something that makes us feel like a community, can do that for us. It’s important.

Community hardiness also means acknowledging a community’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as trying to see which perceived weaknesses could actually turn out to be strengths. You want to give people an opportunity to identify as a community, and to have a sense of pride in your community's ability to see something through. That means letting go of the sometimes natural tendency to feel like victims in a crisis, trying to turn that around instead. You want a community mindset: We may not have what the people next-door have, but we have innovated in this way, we can do this, and we can come together.

We're seeing wonderful examples of this during COVID-19 on all levels of society. We're seeing corporations do it, we're seeing high profile people do it, we're seeing communities do it, and we’re seeing our next-door neighbors do it. That's fantastic, but it's a question of allowing people to find their place in the response. How can they help? And that goes back to that idea of giving people something to do. If you point them in the right direction, people will take off and do good things.

How can schools be teaching students to be great citizens during a crisis?

Albert Bandura is a social psychologist who talked about motivation and accomplishing things as individuals and as groups. Leaders or parents modeling good behavior to students is a very effective way of teaching.

Another thing that helps people master a skill or an idea or concept is  presenting it to them in small steps, so that they can visualize themselves doing it. Not only should we model the behavior, but we should invite our youngest people in our communities to do something themselves in that way.

I think that social media has really applauded young people who take on causes and roles, and that's great for those who can do it. But there are also smaller ways that people can contribute to a cause. We should try to find those ways and lead children into that, so that they can master that ability to self-sacrifice in some way, or to reach out to help someone who needs help. This is a perfect opportunity to teach those skills.