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Public Health: Communicating through Crisis

Dana Coleman

Public health professionals have long understood the basic tenets of communicating in a public health crisis. Be First. Be Right. Be Credible.

While this isn't a motto offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it does appear on the cover of the CDC's Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication manual. And, these are the first three of its six principles for emergency health response.

Crisis response guidelines and trainings offered by vast numbers of crisis communications, nonprofit and government organizations are ubiquitous. Yet public health agencies and communicators are too often forced to watch helplessly as these tenets are ignored. Why?

As one public health communicator put it simply, "Unfortunately, I'm not the boss of them."

So do these principles still matter? Yes, they do. In a public health emergency, outcomes can be changed based on decisions and behaviors. Lives can be saved. How effectively a community or an organization communicates through a devastating crisis also impacts its recovery. Therefore, the principles that guide sound public health communications through crisis and risk are, especially now, well worth reviewing.

  1. Be First. The first to speak in a crisis is often considered to be the most trusted authority on the situation. And it's important to get what facts are known out quickly, before inaccurate information or rumor fills the space.
  1. Be Right. You don't have to have all the information you'd like or facts you feel you need the first time you communicate in a crisis. But being right gives you credibility. Strive for accuracy and be up front about what still isn't known.
  1. Be Credible. Public health communicators hold steadfastly to the tenet that honesty and truthfulness are paramount in a spokesperson, particularly in a crisis.
  1. Be Empathetic. A crisis creates fear, uncertainty and harm. Expressing empathy builds trust and rapport.
  1. Promote Action. People feel calmer when there is something they can do, even if it's washing your hands properly or staying away from grandparents to protect them from potential illness.
  1. Be Respectful. To promote cooperation and rapport, respectful communication is important when people are feeling vulnerable. Never stigmatize groups or individuals.

Observe the various spokespersons during this crisis and others. Listen to the public health officials, physicians and scientists. If you listen closely, you'll likely hear their words reflect an understanding of the significance of these principles.

And if you don't, well, remember: Public health communicators likely aren't the boss of them.

Dana Coleman, vice president at Lovell Communications, has more than 30 years of experience in the public and private sectors. She is trained in CDC Crisis + Risk Communications and in Incident Command System Joint Information Center operations.


CDC's Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication

Lovell Communications


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CDC, COVID-19, Crisis Communications, Dana Coleman, Emergency Management, Lovell Communications, Public Health Emergency
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