by Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC
Your COVID crisis communications plan and your COVID crisis communication pre-written news releases need to be modified immediately if your organization is being attacked over policies related to COVID-19 mask requirements or vaccine mandates.
Daily we see news reports of school boards, city councils, and county governments being attacked for their position. Likewise, companies, restaurants, bars, and retail businesses are also in crisis mode as they deal with the Delta Variant.
So what do you do?
I’ve used a crisis communications secret for decades to harness the power of a written and spoken preamble. (One of the things that I love about the SituationHub.com crisis communications app is that every crisis statement has a preamble already written and baked into the crisis news releases that the app writes.)
If you are responsible for making an opening statement in a public meeting or if you have to issue a written news release, the preamble states the organization’s 1) noble purpose and 2) goals.
For example, the president of the school board might make the following statement:
“At the Harris County School Board, our goal is to educate children in a safe and nurturing environment. Effective learning is best accomplished when we are able to have in-person learning, and when our population of both students and faculty are healthy.”
Such a preamble must also be true. You want everyone in the audience to nod their head in agreement.
Admittedly, you will never win over everyone, but your goal should be to win over two-thirds of your intended audience.
Your next sentence must state your action while using the preamble to justify your action. For example:
“In order for us to have in-person learning and in order for the learning environment to be safe for all of our students, staff and faculty, we are establishing the following requirements.”
“All children over the age of (X) and all staff and faculty will be required to wear a mask.
All children over the age of (X) and all staff and faculty will be required to have a vaccination.”
If this were your official position, you would then be attacked by those who think masks and/or vaccinations should not be required. Your job in crisis communications is to know that such an attack represents a vulnerability that needs to be researched in advance. (See our past articles on Vulnerability Assessments and the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications. You can even watch the SituationHub.com Master Class on this topic.)
A Vulnerability Assessment will tell you what the objections are of those in opposition to your position, such as:
- A violation of personal liberty
- Religious exemptions
- Breathing difficulty
- Medical conditions
Therefore, your next statement should acknowledge those objections, in a way that allows those in opposition to nod their heads in agreement that you understand them, such as:
“We recognize that some members of our community may be opposed to this. Some people feel that this violates their personal liberties and freedoms. Some people may say it affects breathing, medical conditions, or religious beliefs. We understand this and we respect that you have strong feelings on this issue.”
Next comes your alternatives to the opposition:
“If your child is not vaccinated and if you prohibit your child from wearing a mask, you will have several options. We will offer remote learning options and parents also have the option to homeschool their children.”
Next, tie everything back to your preamble:
“Ultimately, our goal is to educate children in a safe and nurturing environment. Effective learning is best accomplished when we can have in-person learning, and when our population of both students and faculty are healthy. Health experts tell us that the two most effective tools at our disposal are masks and vaccinations.”
Now address the objections directly, while reinforcing your stand, credit third-party experts, and tie your position back to your preamble.
“We know some people may question the effectiveness of masks. We know some people may question the safety of vaccines. However, experts tell us that masking and vaccinations are the two most effective tools at our disposal. And in order to keep our children safe, experts tell us that the benefits far outweigh the risks.”
Next, dispel any beliefs in the audience that have not been addressed previously, for example:
“Some may question whether this infringes on your liberties and personal freedoms. Some may question if this is an overreach by the government or businesses. Here are examples of similar rules already in place in our society:
- If you go to a restaurant, you’ve likely seen a sign that says, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’ This is an example of the rights granted to a business, for the safety, comfort, and respect of all of the other patrons.
- If you drive, you must wear a seat belt.
- If you drive, you cannot be drunk.
- If you go into an industrial facility, you must follow safety requirements, such as wearing safety glasses or perhaps a bright, reflective vest, or other safety garments and apparatuses.
- In school, vaccination requirements already exists.
Our society is full of requirements designed to keep the vast majority of people safe. These rules are in place for the safety of each individual and the safety of society at large.”
Now, reinforce the above statement with a tie to your preamble:
“If our goal is to provide education in a safe environment for our students, we must keep them from getting COVID and we must keep them from spreading COVID to their parents and grandparents.”
Now give a real-life example of the tragedy that you wish to avoid while conveying emotion and empathy, which are critical in effective crisis communications.
“How would you feel if one of our students died from COVID? How would you feel if one of our parents died of COVID because a child brought the infection home from school? How empty would the holidays be if a grandparent had died of COVID because they received a loving hug from a child who got COVID at school?”
Now put a bow on it.
“Every decision this board makes, must always focus on two things: the education of your child and the safety of your child.”
If you structure your crisis communications statement, news release, policy, or letter in this way, every objection that you get simply requires you to retreat and repeat, i.e. retreat to a previous statement and repeat it.
As a society, I’ve never witnessed a crisis in which there are opposing points of view. For example, if a house is burning, everyone is in agreement that those inside should be rescued and that the fire should be put out.
But the reality is, we live in polarizing times where anger and outrage are weaponized, fueled by politics and social media.
- Identify your position.
- Take your stand.
- Write your crisis communications statement.
- Use your statement to defend your position and answer all objections.
- Stand by your stand.
If we can assist you, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”
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15 Questions to Ask Before You Use Facebook for Crisis Communications
Can You Handle a Crisis When it Hits by Winging It?
Crisis Management Lessons from Hurricane Katrina vs. COVID19
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