reporters taking notes COVID-19 crisis communications

Do you remember a time in history when governors in multiple states ordered schools closed for weeks? I sure don’t. These are unprecedented times.  As press secretary for a big city mayor, I worked for nearly a decade as the lead communicator during major crises: a snowstorm that shut the city for weeks; a G-20 economic summit accompanied by violent protests; and a shooting incident where a psychopath gunned down multiple police officers. 

This kind of experience teaches you a few things relevant to the current COVID-19 crisis. Here’s some crisis communications techniques that government and business leaders alike can apply now.

1.     Know Your Brand, But Adapt To The Circumstance

The essence of crisis communications is branding. Who are you as an organization or government agency? Who is your audience? What is it that your targets expect or need from you? If Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, for example, had gone through a Premo branding exercise pre COVID-19 communications he would have learned that, despite his naturally calm disposition, bar-goers and seniors alike needed to hear communications that hit harder than “please stay home.” As a result, St. Patrick’s Day revelers were out in force last weekend and the impact of that is expected to be dire.

On the contrary, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is a strong, direct communicator and speaks and acts like his audience: gritty New Yorkers.  In each press conference he lays out all of the facts in a clear and pragmatic way and then presents the solution. In his last press conference, he communicated that “our plans adjust or move as the facts change.” Anecdotally, he spoke that his office received the highest number of calls because of bars being closed (not schools) to which he quipped: “If you are upset at what we have done, be upset at me, not the village mayor.  I will do whatever is necessary to contain the virus. The buck stops on my desk.” By the way, New York’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate is 19%.

Real Application
Business leaders and agencies alike should have a prioritized  list of target audiences at all times — regardless of not knowing what the next problem might be. Tier out your audience from (1) most vulnerable (those likely to not listen and those likely to be impacted) and (5) least vulnerable. Address messaging to your most vulnerable targets first. If you’re a college or university and your students are soon to return from spring break — treat them with respect. Engage, don’t abandon. Same for their families. Your brand comes with a price tag.

2.     Create Focused Messaging That Is On Brand And Absorbable 

Public safety and health leaders need to commit to stronger messaging replete with real human stories.  People need shock and awe to cut through the clutter of social media overload. Political leaders also need to be less polite and more precise. I referenced Pennsylvania’s Governor earlier. Instead of “please stay home”,  a more direct message like, “you need to stay home” backed up with proof points on the pragmatic why would have been stronger.

Real Application
Leaders – from human resource directors, CEOs, to mayors and governors – must take seriously the importance of clear, concise communications that are on brand with their institution.

If you’re an educational institution, how are you being true to your  brand? For an institution like Harvard — what can students do from home home to serve their college community? For an institution like my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon,  students fresh back from spring break can innovate on their computers to help flatten the curve. Their university president can challenge them so that they’re less likely to party in crowded environments.

COVID-19 crisis communications predictive media training Pittsburgh
3.     Be Pragmatic and Use Specific Facts Audiences absorb specific fact and figure messages when they relate to the problem at hand. For example, using an inexact number 19,239 vs. 2000 – far easier to remember the latter.  On the pragmatic side, Ohio’s Governor Mike Dewine was one of the first to shut down schools. He was clear about his role as a public servant, and put public health and safety first,  earning respect from both political aisles. Further, His decision to postpone rather than take the easy way out will long be remembered — especially by the elderly poll workers and their families who will enjoy much more time together.

Real Application
I recently watched the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) COVID-19 Town Hall. I heard strong, effective messaging, backed up by shock and awe statistics. As one of the world’s leading institutions in the health sciences, here’s some facts to consider when sharing with your organization:
– About 60% of the US population will contract COVID-19. With a 1% rate of mortality, 1.5M will die of this disease. In 2019, 606,880 US citizens died of cancer.
– Do you know someone over 80? If they get the virus, nearly 15% of this population will die.
– We don’t have enough ventilators. We have 160,000 in the US and its estimated 1M will need ventilators. And as Governor Cuomo continually reminds, “You can’t find a ventilator for sale.”

4.     Deliver Your Messaging with Empathy People respect decisiveness even if they don’t like it. Use active  tense and speak most directly to the public. During crises, — people yearn for clarity and direction. They want to know: what should we do right now and why? At the same time, you want to earn their trust right away. So  be relatable. Tell a real people story about how this crisis has impacted you and your family. Lead with human emotion. Lean in when you speak, standing straight with a forward lean, vs. a hunch.

Real Application
When Governor Cuomo ended his most recent press conference he got personal reflecting on how the real family challenges he is facing. His sister wants his mother to come over. Cuomo can’t see his kids: “The distance of my family saddens me to the core.” 

Stay Safe, 

Joanna Doven
Premo CEO and Founder


To do our small part, we created these social graphics that serve as our take on how our government could better message this crisis. Feel free to download and share with your employees, friends and loved ones.