Covid-19 communication: Follow the experts, not the politicians

“We have it very much under control.” This simple statement of reassurance was a strong, memorable message from President Trump on Tuesday. But the words, about virus Covid-19 in the US, have already unleashed a wave of criticism that Trump is expected to address in a statement tonight. 

As the virus spreads around the world, leaders in politics, in business and in communities will need to find effective ways of communicating steps to take – and things to avoid. They will need to strike a balance between being reassuring and being realistic.

In an era when politicians seem wary of evidence, this could be a challenge for some – which is reason enough for business leaders to take their lead from experts, not political leaders. Follow the basic rules of crisis communication:

  • Stick to the facts – what you know to be true. This can include informing people about what steps your organisation is taking and has taken; which authorities it is liaising with; passing on relevant advice from authorities and health professionals.
  • Avoid meaningless soundbites such as Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza telling everyone what they already know: “We’re talking about a virus that doesn’t respect borders,” he said on Tuesday. Or this observation from Jens Spahn, German health minister who said the situation “could get worse before it gets better”.
  • Avoid empty sensational words like panic or crisis and avoid Trump’s mistake of appearing complacent. Speak instead about the importance of a measured response.
  • If communicating with your employees and teams, follow the simple style of communication from medical professionals and agencies.

Here’s an example of Public Health England explaining how they’re dealing with travellers from China:

“We have introduced advanced monitoring at airports with direct flights from China. A team of public health experts has been established in Heathrow to support anyone travelling in from China who feels unwell. These hubs will bring in rotational teams of 7 clinicians, working in shifts, who will be on hand to support patients on arrival. This is in addition to medical staff who are already permanently in place at all UK airports and the advice issued to all UK airports for people travelling to and from China.”

The communication is informative, neutral in tone and without hyperbole. The only adjectives are ‘direct’ and ‘rotational’. Verbs include ‘introduced’, ‘support’ (twice) and ‘travelling’ (twice).