Communicate, communicate, communicate -- that is the hallmark of leadership in a crisis.
Public officials and leaders of organizations at risk earn the trust of their constituents by calmly sharing what is known and not known about a threat or crisis, expressing empathy about the uncertainty, explaining what is being done by those in charge and giving people practical advice about what they should or should not do. Crises like the unexpected outbreak of swine flu require communications from, between, and among multiple sources--leaders at every level of government and the private sector, experts and the public.
Reaching people where they are is critical. The mainstream media is important, but the internet is where a growing number of young (and older) people get their information. Social networks, text messages, even twittering with factual information from trusted sources can help inform and also dispel rumors, which can become viral and virile.
The post-Katrina investments in public health and planning for an avian flu pandemic have strengthened the capability and coordination of public and private institutions to identify, track, and share information about the spread of swine flu, and to implement plans to protect and respond as needed. To be credible, messages have to be factual, consistent and candid. Errors must be corrected immediately and explained. CDC is good at this and has earned respect through its handling of SARS and a number of outbreaks of food borne and other diseases.
Avoiding economic disruption during a public health emergency is tough, as we are seeing in Mexico City. People can make informed choices but population-wide measures are more likely to be understood and followed if communications from public and private leaders, including physicians and emergency responders are sensitive, practical and frequent -- with public health trumping commerce even in a tough economy.
Every potential or real crisis has its own personality but the imperative to communicate, communicate, communicate up, down and across, through multiple modes and from trusted messengers never varies.
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