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#Covid-19: Communicating trust in uncertain times

It's here. The coronavirus (Covid-19) has landed on our shores and it's spreading.
Like most crises, the belief is “it will not happen to me”, despite the high probability that it will actually happen. But, every country, company or individual will experience a crisis. It is in the management, however, of the issue or crisis where trust is built or destroyed, confidence is garnered or eroded, bonds of affiliation are cemented or resented. Bad communication at times of crisis results in more reputation damage than the virus itself.

Building a mature and credible public alliance is how trust is built. It may be worth revisiting the principles of communication when dealing with a crisis, whether by the Department of Health, government or corporates who will have to consider a response to the virus.

Our natural instinct is to reassure those affected in a crisis. However, over-reassuring does not build confidence. Nowhere in the world do people feel reassured that the virus is under control. Not even in a country like Italy – which is relatively advanced with a modern healthcare infrastructure.

It is often counterintuitive to say “we’re also worried”. But, it makes you sound human, believable and trustworthy. To assure the public or your staff that you have this under control and that they have nothing to worry about introduces doubt resulting in distrust. Public fears should be validated and should also go a step further to help the public bear the pain.

The spread of the virus is unpredictable and we don’t know its long and short-term effects. Uncertainty is to be expected. There’s a natural inclination to show overconfidence because we think it makes the public feel safe. It doesn’t. The fact is we don’t know what may happen next. Share what is known and what is unknown.

Overconfidence and over-reassurance do not instil the behaviour that may be required in a crisis. You do want the public to feel concerned in order to take action like washing their hands to prevent contracting and spreading the infection. You want to avoid public apathy as far as possible.

On the see-saw of alarm and confidence, it is always safer to err on the side of alarm without being alarmist and hope to land in the middle. The alarm end of the spectrum saves lives while the other end potentially loses lives. Expect to be criticised for being on the alarmist side but it’s the safer option in the reputation stakes. There is value in an ‘emotional rehearsal’ of what’s to come by raising the level of caution before a crisis strikes. Helping people bear the distress will build public confidence.

A headline that reads ‘It’s not as bad as we thought’ is preferred to one that reads ‘It’s worse than we expected’. However, there is a narrow line between raising the alarm and instilling a sense of caution.

One of the cardinal rules of crisis communication is to tell your own bad news. Tell it all, tell it first and tell it well. Done well, it helps to manage the narrative, frames the issue in your interest and kills speculation, fast. A media investigation will be front-page news but the same story that you tell will attract a few column inches on the inside pages or save you from trending in the Twittersphere.

Misinformation is a scourge. It is causing havoc and undermining efforts by health sector institutions. Incorrect information and snake-oil remedies must be rebutted in real-time, which require monitoring, analysis and response. Reliable information from credible sources is what needs amplification on social media. Thankfully, the technology to do this is well advanced.

There are ongoing reports and several spokespersons have been commenting including the minister, deputy minister and the MEC for health in Gauteng where the second infected South African resides. While health minister Zweli Mkhize is a safe pair of hands, having multiple spokespersons with potentially multiple messages will be confusing. The public will not know who to believe when there are mixed messages from the government. While there is no immediate crisis, it will become more difficult if all MECs in provinces engage with media. Inconsistent messages will undermine communication efforts, increase anxiety and scupper the credibility of experts. Opinion diversity can thrive in public discourses but not in official government communication.

Being candid is not our natural muscle when things go wrong. But, total candour is what is required. That can mean being upfront about what is not working and what is working. Both are valid and both help to build trust. There will be natural public scepticism, even when good news is announced. Due to uncertainty, efforts to manage the infections and spread of the virus may have to change course.

It becomes important to share choices made, acknowledge the uncertainty, share the dilemma and explain why it’s the chosen course. Be candid about what is probable and what is possible, but unlikely. The public will then be more accepting when policy changes become necessary. Candour is the core of credibility.

First appeared in Daily Maverick, 12 March 2020.

About the author

Neeran Naidoo is CEO and partner in Hewers, a crisis communication and reputation risk management consultancy.

Hewers' press office

HewersHewers is a niche market crisis communication, issues management and reputation consultancy. We protect your reputation and restore trust at times of crisis. We're trusted advisors in a modern economy.
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