Coronavirus Crisis Communications 101

Published in The Jerusalem Post, October 9, 2020; and in Israel Hayom, October 11, 2020.

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The Israeli government needs an expert spokesman to stickhandle the corona crisis.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

According to all public opinion surveys, Israelis have lost confidence in the government’s handling of the corona crisis. Largely, this is because of the helter-skelter and fickle character of government decision-making, and due to the hypocrisy of some senior decision makers – who brazenly have violated the behavioral restrictions they imposed on the average man and woman in the street.

If the elites don’t know what they’re doing and arrogantly accord themselves with VIP freedoms not available to the everyday Abraham and Sarah, it is no wonder that Abe and his wife feel confusion and contempt towards the political leaders.

There is a third, albeit less central, reason that the public no longer trusts the government’s say-so regarding corona: Because there is no professional spokesman in this war on corona to deliver reliable (and as consistent as possible) messaging to the public.

Neither the prime minister nor the health minister nor the corona “czar” ought to be the day-today spokesman on behalf of the government at this time. (And who decided on the ridiculous and dictatorial moniker “czar” for this position?!)

Israel needs a seasoned communications expert to strategize, coordinate and deliver government messaging, both within and between government agencies and departments as well as to the broader public.

I learned on the job many lessons about crisis communications, as the spokesman of Bar-Ilan University in the months and years following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was a crisis of global proportions. The evil assassin was a kippa-wearing law and religious studies student at the university, and the Israeli media and public (and then the international media) unloaded on the university much of its anger and grief over the murder. (Unjustifiably so, but that is another conversation).

Here are six lessons I learned from that difficult professional assignment; lessons that are applicable to the communications management of most major crises including the acute corona situation currently facing Israel.

1. Define objectives. It is important to distinguish between different communications goals and define strategy accordingly.

Roughly speaking, there five separate objectives that can delineated in a crisis situation: a. the conveying of information, b. generating support for a specific policy, person or organization, c. preventing worse outcomes or judgements, d. articulation of the rationale for a decision (– and note: It is as important to do so within an organization or a government as it is outside that body), and e. calming a situation.

In the current corona crisis, all five of these goals are relevant, especially the latter three, and the Israeli government has fallen almost-criminally short in these areas.

2. Take control of the message. The responsibility for communications in a crisis should be consolidated in one spokesperson or department, to ensure maximum coordination and on-target messaging, making best use of available resources.

Obviously, this is difficult to do when you have 700 professors each of whom insists on speaking his/her mind (“academic freedom”!), or 50 ministers and deputy ministers from rival political parties in the cabinet, along with dozens of relevant senior officials across many ministries – each of whom claims to know best.

Nevertheless, by investing ultimate communications responsibility in an expert figure and making it clear that only his/her say-so constitutes formal policy which is binding and authoritative, an organization or a government under siege can rise above the cacophony and demonstrate seriousness and accountability.

3. Ensure integrative spokesmanship. The organizational or government spokesperson must be an integral part of the internal decision-making process, not just an adjunct functionary or external advisor. He/she must be privy to all information and assessments. He/she should participate in every strategy meeting so that communications considerations and advantages/disadvantages are built-in to every major decision.

Over time, even know-it-all and media-hungry Israeli politicians likely will learn that a built-in communications confident is in their own best interests. (In a worse case scenario, it gives them someone else to blame, too).

4. Be transparent and truthful. Even the small stuff eventually gets out (like, say, Sarah Netanyahu’s haircut or Nadav Argaman’s dinner party) and the public can smell a white lie from Eilat to Metula, right through microwave television broadcasts and across fiber-optic internet cables.

Therefore, hide almost nothing, be constantly available, and always tell the truth. (Or at least tell most of truth in real time; some truths sometimes need to be delayed). Remember: Equivocation breeds distrust, and lies lead to contempt. Humility (“I don’t yet know”) builds authenticity, and candor will be perceived as genuine, especially when delivering bad or inconvenient news.

Never-ever insist on something by referring to “secret” information or “eyes-only” assessments – as Israel’s leaders wrongly have done several times in recent months regarding corona. That is a sure-fire recipe for ridicule and disbelief among the listening public. You have to level with the public, not bamboozle it.

5. Communicate consistent messages. It is critical to have a steady hand at the helm, with a constant refrain of clear communiques.

This, of course, presupposes consistent policy, such as cautionary restrictions on prayers and protests that do not change every 2.5 hours. And when a spokesman is party to erratic policies, or is forced to justify policy that necessarily vacillates at a dizzying speed (because of the nature of the virus and its changing effects on public health), the spokesperson’s credibility is going to take a beating.

But that is the nature of the challenge. A polished, sincere and wise spokesperson should be able to explain to the public even roller-coaster rulings and topsy-turvy determinations. If he/she is consistent and candid most of the time, there will be a reservoir of reliability available when some obfuscation or an about-face is required.

6. Humanize and personalize the project. It drives me crazy to hear dry corona statistics leading every morning’s broadcasts (so many dead, so many infected, etc.) – without any names or biographies. Why aren’t we seeing the faces, and learning about the lives, of those unfortunate Israelis hardest hit by the pandemic?

This is a gargantuan error; a communications misplay that has both practical and moral implications. I have no doubt that color coverage of ill and dying Israelis, including those who have “recovered” from the virus (yet still have months of side-effects to overcome) would usefully scare the public into much-improved compliance with corona behavior guidelines. (Perhaps this might increase charitable giving and humanitarian volunteering by the public, too).

If the current pandemic is to be considered a “war” that can only be won by the entire public, like military conflict with Israel’s jihadist enemies that needs total communal commitment (and it is that!), then the human side of the tragedies involved must be made apparent. When at war, act accordingly.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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