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Combat COVID-19 with communication

Organizations are uniquely positioned to respond to the public-health emergency by conveying clear messages that advance a common cause. Here are 4 ways they can respond in a crisis.

March 16, 2020

By Cory Phare

The fallout from COVID-19 is unlike anything most people have faced in their lifetime: stock markets plunging. Sports leagues and concerts canceled. Restaurants and shops shuttered. Massive buying of toilet paper.

So when it comes to organizational response, what are leaders – and their subordinates – to do?

Our organizations – companies, small businesses, universities, nonprofits, religious institutions, etc. – and their leadership are particularly integral to an effective response to any crisis, including this outbreak of COVID-19.

Since all of us have some kind of connection to organizations as a common form of social order, they can serve as a mechanism to achieve a shared goal of health and safety, said Brenden Kendall, Ph.D., associate professor of communication studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Relying on individuals isn’t effective to create massive patterns of social behavioral change, he said. In fact, it can create complexity and chaos.

“It’s so much easier to achieve a common goal of health and safety when collective efforts are organized,” Kendall said.


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In a public-health crisis such as the one we face today, the primary objective is to protect human life, said Michelle Baum, assistant professor of journalism and media production at MSU Denver.

“The second objective is to maintain economic continuity, which is reliant on achieving the first objective,” she said.

How can our organizations best achieve these critical goals? Baum and Kendall share their thoughts on how organizations and their constituents should respond to this and future crises.

Apply the precautionary principle

At its most basic, the precautionary principle is a strategy for cautious decision-making in an environment wherein there is a dearth of information or scientific data available.

In crisis situations, the desire to spring into action should be tempered by a deliberate, measured analysis of available information, which helps mitigate risk, Kendall said.

“We’ve seen the swift action of whole industries coalescing around a defensive approach to containment,” he added. “This precautionary, ethical-minded response is encouraging as it’s in the interest of the public good, rather than being reflexive or the most profitable option.”

Part of the challenge has been dealing with a deluge of messages that seem to move faster than our ability to handle them or analyze their veracity, Baum said.


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“Misinformation, as we’ve seen, causes confusion and increased anxiety,” she said. “The challenge is that our culture expects answers nearly immediately and, because of this, silence often causes greater fear, uncertainty and doubt.”

To counter this, she suggested referring to trusted sources for information and updates, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization and the MSU Denver page dedicated to coronavirus updates.

“Knowledge is power,” Baum said.

Create clarity among teams

Defined and direct information helps move people to one side and the problem on the other.

“A lack of clarity creates confusion,” Kendall said. “Right now, leaders are creating a sense of urgency – and we don’t have clear solutions, but folks are acting swiftly to ensure that urgency doesn’t become an emergency.”

The best way to do this? With simple, composed language to reach as large a target audience as possible.

“Organizations have a social responsibility to ensure that stakeholders receive timely and accurate communication in a consistent manner,” Baum said. “This sense of cohesion will influence and empower people to take appropriate steps to reduce their risk and more readily accept inconveniences.”


TEDx MSU Denver: The power of purpose in business


Use cascading communication

Just like water flows from the top down, so too does clear communication.

When leaders create messages that can be repeated throughout all levels of their organization, information becomes reinforced in formal and informal networks, increasing the likelihood that it will stick, Kendall said.

“Cascading does two things: It reinforces meaning and helps to surface problems – not necessarily solving them but highlighting inconsistencies,” he said.

Be open and calm

Don’t panic – it’s easier said than done. But encouraging a free flow of information throughout organizations helps destigmatize asking for help.

“It’s OK not to know something – you can simply flip the message to ‘I can find out,’” Kendall said. “That’s empowering.”

Baum noted how in this unprecedented environment, authorities must work quickly to gather and confirm new information and regularly communicate any new information to the public calmly.

“When done right, crisis communication helps people navigate uncertainty with greater clarity and less hysteria,” she said.

The key? Exercising agency to regain some sense of what’s actually in our control – like hand-washing, social distance and checking in on others.

“As the British were fond of saying, ‘Keep calm and carry on,’” Kendall said. “It’s good advice during wartime, a public-health crisis – or a Wednesday.”


Metropolitan State University of Denver is diligently monitoring the emerging cases of COVID-19 in Colorado and providing updates to the University community on its dedicated Coronavirus Updates and Resources webpage.

RED will continue to report the effects of COVID-19 on Colorado's economic, scientific and cultural sectors in subsequent stories.


 


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