Unleash the professional communicators in the coronavirus response

Eric Singer

The bottom line for public information and public affairs officers in this time of coronavirus/COVID-19 is to keep panic out of the pandemic. Retired FEMA Public Affairs Officer Ed Conley joined me on our PAST Fusion Cell News line to talk about how a lack of public trust can damage the response and make a crisis worse. Conley’s professional experience covers hundreds of disasters and emergency responses, from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 to Ebola and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Conley and another FEMA alum, Jim Chesnutt, wrote a fascinating article entitled, “Americans are saying trust us with the truth. Are we listening?”

I spoke with Conley about the article, in which he says there is too much focus on panic and that some public officials are confusing panic with fear. He told me behavioral scientists agree that in a crisis, the public reaction is typically not to panic: “In a disaster, mass panic is rare. Don’t plan to avoid it because that leads to over-reassurance, distorting information and withholding information. What we are seeing is fear. Fear is normal and fear can actually motivate people to take rational actions. When people are afraid, anxious or worried they crave information and they turn to trusted sources for that information, and they tend to act on the recommendations from the people they believe in.”

Conley also believes there is a group we need to hear more from during this fight: experts and professional communicators. He said: “In a crisis, information is just as important as food, water and shelter. In a public health crisis its importance is even more magnified, because information in a health crisis can do so much to mitigate the consequences of the event. What worries us is we’re not hearing enough from people who have important knowledge the public needs to know. We are talking about our medical doctors, scientists who are studying the disease, and psychologists who understand the challenges and stress the public is facing with the quarantine or financial problems. And our professional emergency management communicators, who are so good at anticipating the public’s information needs, meeting those needs, and then putting the information into the hands of people.”

Conley added that it’s especially important right now to consider the public an asset, not a liability: “From our experience working disasters, the public is one of the greatest resources you have. People will help take a lot of the burden off your first responders, your healthcare professionals and others, because they’re doing things on their own that reduce the burden on the entire response system. So using the public as an asset is a huge response strategy that has great benefits that will help improve the efficiency of the response and speed the recovery.”

Conley does believe this painful and deadly global crisis is one that will eventually be overcome: “Our country has this deep reservoir of talent, and people in this country will emerge who are going to help carry us through this crisis, and that gives us great hope.”

On the bottom of this page you will find a link to Ed Conley and Jim Chesnutt’s article plus my Mp3 of this interview. Thanks for reading and listening to it. If you would like to hear previous Flash Briefings that include best practices to help your organization, “LIKE” the Argonne PAST Fusion Cell Facebook page and join the conversation. Also, don’t forget to be a part of our Twitter and Instagram community @pastfusioncell.

Flash Briefing – March 27, 2020