When a disease outbreak or epidemic strikes, scores of companies, nonprofits and health groups want to make themselves heard. But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned daily life on its head and companies need to be mindful of that. Otherwise, they not only run the risk of being deemed irrelevant, but also of appearing to be so self-serving that they lack integrity and are out of touch with their communities.

We compiled a list of do’s and don’ts for communicating during a public health crisis to help marketers and communicators navigate these uncertain times.

Do’s

  • Admit uncertainty – Throughout the lifecycle of the pandemic, government officials and leading scientists have been bombarded with questions:

When will a vaccine be available?

How long will social distancing guidelines be in place?

Are patients that have recovered from the virus now immune?

As of this writing, no one truly knows the answers. While that is frustrating, it is ok to admit. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a terrific example embodying the qualities of leadership we all crave. He has been a measured voice of reason for weeks, building trust — and accolades — along the way for his ability to admit what he doesn’t know and providing a strong rationale for the actions of his office.

  • Be empathetic – Tens of thousands of Americans have already died due to COVID-19, and the virus is impacting disadvantaged communities at even greater rates. With that in mind, be sensitive of how various stakeholders could interpret any messaging.
  • Contribute to the conversation – Push notifications about the pandemic light up our cell phone screens all day every day. Some information is critical to save lives, but others just add to the noise. Ensure that communications vehicles purposefully contribute to the conversation.
  • Keep it simple – The CDC’s 2019 Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication manual points out that during a crisis, people are scientifically proven to have more difficulty understanding convoluted concepts. Now is not the time to overcomplicate.  

Don’ts

  • Speak in absolutes – It’s impossible to know how the pandemic will progress, to put it mildly. For instance, one statistical model might project a state’s COVID-19 cases will peak in early May. Another model might project the peak to occur in late June. During this time of uncertainty, it is critical to avoid speaking in absolutes. Don’t tell reporters that a certain factory will never close and don’t tell employees that they will be back in the office next Monday unless you absolutely know that is happening for a fact. Even then, exercise caution.
  • Work in a silo – As human beings, we accomplish the most when we work together; now is the best time to remember that. If a pharmaceutical company is working with the FDA on a new product announcement, it is crucial to ensure communications efforts by both entities are coordinated. Doing so ensures audiences receive the same information and no stakeholders are caught by surprise.
  • Forget to lead by example – The stakes are incredibly high. That means everyone is a target for criticism right now. If a grocery store does not implement the proper social distancing procedures, it not only could turn into a public relations quagmire but also put shoppers at risk. In the same breath, how would it look if two news anchors sat side by side at the desk like normal instead of properly social distancing?

The most meaningful messages in a crisis productively contribute to the conversation. As author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell notes, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

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