Messaging in the time of the novel coronavirus

My friend James Carville uttered the phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ back in 1991 or ’92, a galvanizing and clarifying pronouncement for the ultimately successful effort of Governor Bill Clinton to ascend to the White House. As the tsunami of news, information and ‘guidance’ on the coronavirus swamps our screens, I’m being transported back to the power of that advice. With that in mind, here is my effort to counsel our leaders, public and private:

  • Commit to do the right thing.
    If you are a leader held in high (or even just middling) regard by your stakeholders, it is time to put that on the line. You can’t accurately or honestly predict all that is going to be required, so don’t be pushed down that rabbit hole. People need to have, and keep, confidence that the people making decisions are making the best ones possible at each milestone of this unfolding situation.
  • Share what you know, acknowledge what you don’t. Encourage others to do the same.
    While there may be people who want to be comforted and told ‘everything will be fine,’ an ethical leader cannot go there unless and until she is convinced it’s the truth. But by consistently adhering to this rule, you gain people’s confidence and increase their capacity to act rationally.
  • Keep offering perspective and hope.
    This is tricky – trying to sound hopeful can slip into breaking rule #2; but perspective is essential, and if delivered effectively, it triggers people’s inherent inclination to think positively. So, try reminders of what we’ve learned so far, recall lessons from past global challenges, acknowledge that people are doing amazing things to help their neighbors and communities, and encourage others to experience this ‘down time’ as opportunity to engage with family, nature and faith.
  • Be present.
    Finally, finding ways to ‘be’ with people even as we social distance and shut the economy down is a challenge; but we have tools aplenty, so unleash your/your team’s creativity: social channels, earned media, advertising all have pipelines expanding to deliver content that people are craving. And, very importantly, we need to get better at tailoring messages as this experience prolongs: who needs to hear what, when? How do we best deliver that to them? Luckily, that expertise is also in good supply. Lean on it.
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