Crisis moments are not an “if” but a “when,” and public information officers and other government officials train year-round to be ready for them. The coronavirus pandemic, while potentially deadly, can be a healthy litmus test for public officials about their messaging techniques and if the public is receiving information, loud and clear. Rebecca Feaster spoke with me on the PAST, Public Affairs Science and Technology Fusion Cell News Line about how officials are doing communicating and addressing rumors during this crisis: “I think it’s been a little all over the place and that is to be expected. What we are trying to do here is have a balancing act between people, addressing their fears and giving them the facts.”
Feaster is a consultant with Argonne National Laboratory and other organizations and she specializes in cultural communication and diversity to help government officials understand the best ways to reach out to various segments of the public: “As we are seeing with the data that is coming out from these hot spots, there are certain communities which are more highly affected by the coronavirus than others. Cultural communication is something that should have been done all along. It is really knowing your different communities in your neighborhood, in your county, in your state and having open communications with them.”
While it seems like a given that public information officers should prep their bosses and subject-matter experts for prime time with cultural communication in mind, it may not always happen in a crisis. Feaster says there is a strategy to help: “The most natural thing is to think about who these informal leaders are in a community. Whether it’s the tribal council, the American Legion Hall, whether it’s pastors or the head of the Boys and Girls Club. PIOs should be reaching out to these already-established relationships. Even if they haven’t been, everybody appreciates it when you make the call and ask that leader if there are some issues in your community that we should be addressing. Are there rumors that you are seeing cropping up in your church or tribal council that we need to address?”
Feaster’s analysis of how things are going right now? “Democracy at work. It’s messy. It’s frustrating. What we are seeing is a lot of mixed messages because different regions and age groups are being affected by COVID-19 in different ways. For example, Asians are feeling they are under assault because of where the coronavirus came from. In the African-American community, we’ve seen this huge spike in coronavirus deaths. This community already distrusts the health and medical community because of things like the Tuskegee experiments and how African-Americans are treated by doctors and other medical professionals. This is when this community needs to have a sense who is giving them crisis health advice.”
As Feaster alluded to, it’s about always keeping in mind your audience members and the messenger they will trust to ensure your message gets to where it needs to go: “Sometimes you have to think about who is your boss and what is this person saying. But also the subject-matter experts so that these certain communities feel they are hearing these messages from their own people and from those they can trust.”
Rebecca Feaster is a training consultant specializing in cultural communication and diversity. She can be reached via her website at: https://www.feasterandassociates.com/. Thanks for reading this story. Click on the Mp3 link below to hear my entire interview with Feaster.