Communicating in a crisis: lessons learned from the H1N1 pandemic
In the spring of 2009, I was working as a public information specialist with the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. After a long weekend camping outside of Zion National Park, I turned on my Blackberry to discover a frantic stream of emails and voicemails mobilizing the local response to a new strain of influenza, then known only as "swine flu."
This moment pitched me into the most frantic months of my life — weekends spent in joint information centers, my cellphone ringing off the hook. For a young communications professional, it was trial by fire. And I learned a lot about public health emergencies and how to respond to both the news media and the general public.
The H1N1 pandemic taught me fundamental lessons about communicating in a crisis. With COVID-19 upon us in the U.S., I’m revisiting them now.
Be prepared. It’s hard to predict when a crisis will hit, but there are logical things you can do as a communicator to prepare. Whatever your industry, you know the most likely crisis scenarios that might take place. Before the crisis, take time to prepare for these scenarios so you can hit the ground running.
Share what you know and be honest about what you don't know. There is immense pressure for information when a crisis hits, and in those first moments accurate information can be hard to come by. It is crucial to stick to what you know and be transparent about what you do not. Rumors will run rampant, and speculation will only add fuel to the fire.
Have a vetting process for new information and follow it every time. In the heat of a crisis, issuing a retraction or correcting inaccurate information is painful. And in our social world, it is next to impossible to erase false information. It's more important than ever to develop a trusted process to verify information.
Communicate early and often. Everyone is thirsty for new information in a crisis, so share what you know as often as you can. During our H1N1 response, we instituted a daily update email for stakeholders outlining situation updates, key messages and other resources. Although the email was intended for a small audience of stakeholders, it became a lifeline for information that was spread far and wide, cropping up on websites, company intranets, office emails and more.
Turn to social media to share information and monitor sentiment. During the early days of H1N1, a company Facebook page was still a rarity. But when the emergency hit, people turned to our social media accounts in droves. Social media became a key avenue for posting time-sensitive updates, coordinating with reporters and fielding questions from the general public. It is also a great tool to monitor sentiment, common concerns and frequently asked questions — all of which will help you hone your communications.
Remind people that we're all going through this experience together. I found that in the midst of the crisis, it was helpful to show the human face behind the public health response. Emphasizing our common humanity reminds people that we all have families we are worried about, and we all have a role to play in protecting our community.
If you can, give people something to do. Be clear about what people can do right now to stay informed and engaged, even something simple like signing up for email alerts. Giving people a task in an emergency can calm tensions and restore a sense of control in a chaotic situation.
While this is an uncertain time, it’s also a moment that will define who we are. Thank you to all the dedicated professionals who are working around the clock on the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who are tasked with communicating vital and potentially life-saving information.
Note: An earlier version of this blog was published in 2016.