Communicating COVID-19: Be Trustworthy.

Clinical Associate Professor of Public Health and Emergency Management at Adelphi University, K.C. Rondello, M.D., M.P.H., CEM, defines great emergency communication

As a Disaster Epidemiologist and Certified Emergency Manager at New York’s Adelphi University, K.C. Rondello tells us jokingly that he isn’t used to getting this much attention. “99% of the time, no one wants to hear from you because you’re either talking about getting a flu shot, washing your hands, or covering your cough.” That’s no longer the case during the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. in late February.

“Then there’s that 1% of the time, like what’s been going on now, where it doesn’t matter who you’re with or where you’re at: people want information,” he tells SchoolCEO. “It’s been an exceptionally chaotic time.”

We were fortunate enough to steal away a few minutes of Dr. Rondello’s time to learn more about emergency management and communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you think is the role of communication in public health strategies?

Unless your audience are medical or public health experts, they probably don’t know how to protect themselves. People are desperate for information. So in a crisis, information is as critically important as food or water.

Messaging and communicating to the public is absolutely vital. And there are big mistakes that you can make, but also great opportunities that can substantially impact the outcome of the epidemic. It’s absolutely essential that—whatever messages get disseminated—they be clear, be specific, and contain actionable information whenever possible.

What does good communication look like?

A single source: communications should all come from the same person. It’s extremely valuable and important for the community to identify one person that they will be hearing from. In disaster situations, people should receive regular updates even when there may not be a lot of new news to share.

As an example, imagine you are stuck in an airplane on the tarmac and there is a one-hour delay before you’re in the air. In Scenario A, the pilot says, “Welcome aboard, we’ve got a delay so hang tight, we’ll get going as fast as we can.” Then the minutes tick by, and people start getting progressively more anxious, then agitated, and then angry in the void of information. They don’t know what’s happening, where they are in the queue, or if the situation has changed at all.

Now, in Scenario B, you have another plane in the same situation. In this scenario, though, every 15 minutes the pilot gives an update, even if he’s only saying “We’re working our way up the line, looks like it will be 45 more minutes before we’re in the air, but I promise I’ll let you know as soon as we have any new information.” In scenario B, you’re talking about a very different situation, even if the ultimate result in both situations is the plane isn’t getting off the ground for an hour.

There’s also no additional information that Scenario B provided. Nothing changed. But just the sense that you haven’t been forgotten, that someone is looking out for you and that when new information does become available, they’re going to share it with you improves the situation. It does an extraordinary amount to alleviate the anxiety, fear, and anger.

Even if there’s not a lot new to say, having a regular, established, trusted source that provides information at regular intervals — for instance a daily briefing at 3 p.m. each day — goes a long way in mitigating the panic and concern.

In your experience, do people generally listen to the advice of emergency officials?

They do, initially. Generally, when there is a disaster situation in which there’s uncertainty, people turn to public officials. But here’s the catch: if the information they get is not forthcoming, accurate, and consistent, then there will be an information vacuum. To fill that vacuum, people will turn to rumor, speculation, and unofficial sources—for example internet sites written by non-governmental or non-evidence based sources. Those unofficial sources can be inaccurate, inflammatory, irrelevant, or unnecessarily alarming.

And if you’ve missed that opportunity to communicate early on and establish trust with the public, then you have your work cut out for you. Then you not only have to provide the correct information, but you’ll likely need to counter misinformation that’s been circulated.

So in summary, people do turn to official channels in disasters, but those official channels need to be ready to provide that information. Otherwise, people are going to obtain it from other places where the information can’t be assured of being accurate and helpful.

How should school leaders be finding their own information?

If I were a decision-maker in a school district, I would limit information to the most trusted sources and do my best to tune out the noise. In a public health emergency, there is always a lot of noise coming from places other than the CDC, the World Health Organization, and City/County/State Departments of Health. There are an awful lot of people out there who are clouding the waters and making the information situation worse.

That can make it very overwhelming for decision-makers—not knowing what to believe. Believe information coming from these sources: your state department of health, the department of health in your city or county, the CDC, and the WHO. That gives you a global source, a national source, a state source, and a local source. With those four trusted sources, you’ll minimize the risk of clouding the water.

Is there a role for communications to calm people down?

Well there’s a very delicate balance that you need to strike. You need to be able to provide information that is accurate and trusted—and sometimes that information is not pretty. As a result, it has the potential to instill fear and anxiety. So being able to provide accurate information that may be troubling, but doing it in a way that doesn’t incite any unnecessary anxiety or panic or fear, often requires walking a very tight line.

But there are things you can do to best walk that line.

Let’s say that you're about to step into the room for a media briefing or a public meeting. First, identify your objectives: script out exactly what it is that you need to accomplish at that podium in this briefing. Second, prepare anyone who is going to be speaking in advance. Ensure they have all the information they’re going to need, and prepare a statement instead of speaking extemporaneously. Third, anticipate what difficult or sensitive questions might be asked, like “What are you doing to protect students?” “What are you doing to ensure the safety of the community?” Prepare an honest, brief response, and if you’re able to do so in advance, practice your reply so it comes off as more polished.

Where should schools or organizations take extra caution in communication?

There are several potential pitfalls, like relying on a single channel of information or providing statements with incomplete information. Other challenges to avoid include being unnecessarily wordy or imprecise, presenting information out of sequence, using jargon or codes or acronyms that your audience isn’t going to understand, and using inconsistent terminology.

One of the reasons that we have a common vernacular is so that it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a firefighter or a police officer or an emergency doctor — if we’re all calling things by the same name, then that consistent terminology leads to better understanding. When you start using terminology that is discipline-specific or unique to your area or jurisdiction, it provides opportunities for gross misunderstanding.

Bottom line: in emergency communications, you want to provide information that is concise, accurate, trusted, and consistent. Doing so can make an enormous difference in mitigating the crisis, whatever it may be.