Communicating COVID-19: Be Transparent.

Director of the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center Dr. James Kendra shares tips for school leaders facing the COVID-19 outbreak

Dr. James Kendra has studied the response to several of the most prominent international disasters of the past two decades: the waterborne evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, just to name a few. The current Director of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, Kendra specializes in leaderships’ response to disaster—and how organizations can bounce back stronger.

We spoke with Kendra on March 10 about the outbreak of COVID-19, gleaning tips school leaders can use in communicating and managing emergency situations.

What does great communication look like in an emergency situation?

In any kind of crisis, people are going to want a lot of information. They are going to need information that’s as specific as possible, that actually provides them with clear guidance as to what they can do.

Great communication expresses:

  • What is the situation as we know it?
  • How is the situation developing?
  • What are we doing to gather information on the things that we don't know?
  • How will we use that information to make a decision?

It gets back to that idea of transparency: what information we have, how we're gathering information, what we're doing to gather information about things that aren’t clear yet, and how then we're feeding this information into our decision-making.

How can school leaders stay transparent without adding additional anxiety?

People are going to be looking for information. If they don’t get information from leadership, then they’re going to be seeking it from other sources. Then they will fall prey to rumors and inaccurate information.

People expect leaders to be informed, but people also expect that leaders will be able to point out where the information is still unfolding—where it’s still ambiguous. It’s key then for leaders to explain a rationale for their decisions: where the uncertainties are and why they’re making the decision.

If people start hearing conflicting information from different sources, that undermines trust in the overall process.

What are some pitfalls that you've seen in emergency communication?

One is to be concerned about causing panic, and then withholding information or warnings, or not getting the warning out on time. You also tend to see organizations minimizing the information or situation because they don't want to cause panic—that inevitably causes lack of trust.

Again, it gets back to that idea of being transparent about information, because the word eventually gets out. And if it gets out from other channels, then it totally undercuts trust in institutions.

Is there a time to withhold information?

I would say that those situations are far fewer than the other kind of situation where withholding information backfires. Again, information always manages to get out. And I can't say that there are not those times, but they would be few and highly contingent on circumstances.

What happens when conflicting information gets out?

If we go back to some of our research on Ebola, for example, we saw that phrase “abundance of caution” used a lot. And in my view, it was probably overused. So we heard on the one hand that people should not be worried, and they should go about their daily work, but on the other hand, they were deep cleaning planes and so forth.

So the conflict was: we're going to act from an abundance of caution in particular instances, but we're going to advise people in general to go about their daily routines. And it can't be both.

As soon as you see those kinds of contradictions in the messaging—either contradictions across the political leadership of the country, or even conflicts within particular communities, like some events are scheduled and others are canceled—that leads people to question where the actual risk is.

People will sense those kinds of inconsistencies, so there should be a consistent message in terms of what you think the level of risk is. It's also important for there to be broad understanding (within the leadership of a community or a school system) of what the risk is, what the situation is, and what decisions have been made. That could involve reaching outside of a particular organization to community groups—whether it's local churches or nonprofit organizations—to ensure that information is also coming from trusted sources within the community.

We know that not every source is universally trusted by every group, so to have as wide a spectrum of people as possible delivering more or less the same information is key.

How can schools get their messaging out to hard-to-reach families?

There are a variety of different channels in different communities: nonprofit organizations, church and religious organizations. Try to establish partnerships with those entities very early on.

As we're looking at today's crisis, if that hasn't been done, this is a good time to start. It's really never too late to do those types of things, because those are key in building trust.

In one community that I was familiar with—every couple of months, they would invite maybe 40 or 50 representatives from the community, whether it was from local hospitals, nonprofits, church organizations, schools, and they would just meet. They would have a guest speaker or do a tabletop exercise.

More important than any of the written planning was the long-term sense of commitment to one another as a community, of being able to manage an emergency when it happened. It's not something that you put down in a plan in terms of boxes and arrows, but it's part of the overall philosophy in the community of how they're going to handle a crisis. And if it hasn't been done, this is the time to start.

You did some work on stigma during the Ebola outbreak. What did that teach you?

That was a big problem—we certainly know of cases where people were discriminated against, bullied, or hassled based on hailing from or being perceived to be from places that were substantially affected.

There again, part of the communication strategy has to be stressing that idea of community, right? The threat is not based on a person’s place of origin, but on experiences and kinds of contacts. Really, the repetition of that message over time is very key.

What is disaster resilience, and how can schools promote it?

Generally, it’s the ability of an organization—whether it's a university system, a country, a government, a school system, etc.—to respond to stress productively. That means to be able to maintain a satisfactory level of function, to potentially learn from it, and to become better than before.

Improvising and flexibility are key aspects of resilience. We've often seen in some of our different studies that the ability to be creative is a strong element of resilience. I think those are probably the main ones that we've emphasized—an ability to stretch rules, to stretch a normal balance of procedures.

You’ve looked into well-being after crises. How can we be protecting our mental health?

People want to be able to take steps, and people want to be able to feel empowered. So as part of the messaging, it's key to be able to tell people what it is that they are able to do to protect themselves. And so we know in these situations it's a strong emphasis on hand-washing, not touching your face, careful attention to hygiene and cleanliness of surfaces, and so forth. Those are things that people can actually do.

From our experience anyway, one of the most beneficial things is for people to feel empowered to do something, even if it’s simple.

After an emergency situation, how can people move forward?

Look back and try to understand: what are the points of learning? Be very candid in looking back at how an organization performed, in a non-disciplinary, non-punitive way. Understand what went well, where things could have been improved. Use this as an opportunity to do some advanced preparation for the next event.

That's an aspect of empowerment. Even if an organization is caught by surprise today, they don't have to be caught by surprise next time. In a lot of the resiliency literature, now we say: you don't just bounce back; bounce forward. You bounce back better. So, see this event as an opportunity to be more prepared next time.