We’re inundated with information, sometimes directly from the mouths of federal, state and local officials and public health authorities. Most often, though, it comes through a media filter – the flood of our Twitter feeds. It comes to us, all-day, every-day. It’s become overwhelming
That flood of information has become what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) warned about during SARS as an “infodemic” – in which data overload leads to information anxiety. Couple that with this; in many cases, our leaders and the media are giving us information – but they’re not always communicating confirmed truth.
It should be increasingly clear that disseminating facts does not always result in clarity and sometimes leads to confusion. Case in point is a letter to the Lancet about Ibuprofen potentially lowering immune response. The French health minister repeated it, as a warning. Local news media reported the idea even though it lacked a reputable study backing it up. Now, it has taken on a factual life of its own, causing great confusion.
To achieve good communication, spokespeople need to adhere to the three Ts; be transparent, truthful and timely in sharing information. But they need more. They need empathy and wisdom to guide them in their choice of words.
Why? Because the simple exchange of facts will not always drive action. We don’t emotionally trust facts; we trust people – or we don’t. In addition, we tend to trust authoritative voices that demonstrate powerful listening skills. As we process facts emotionally, we trust leaders who move beyond financial and medical data and speak to us in a voice that echoes how we feel, right now.
Heart and Soul, Feeling and Facts
As communicators, we must strive to provide the level of engagement that serves not only the mind, but also the heart and soul. This is where the “unit of 1+” is so important! As communicators, we deal with mass media, but it’s our job to speak through mass media to individuals. If we don’t stop and use our skill to communicate personally and with empathy, we risk contributing to the overtaxed bandwidth of our audiences.
Whether we lead communications efforts for companies or non-profits, work in health or not, we usually provide audiences with information that we believe they will want to know. Now, things are different – we need to communicate in a way that will give our audiences better focus, helping them to create a bridge from today to the future. We need to communicate in a way that combines information and need, using a synthesis of feeling and facts.
Words and the Healing Process
Once, as an army paratrooper and combat medic, I saw suffering and engaged. I learned that words are part of the healing process. Now, as a health communicator, a family man and a rabbi, this has really come home.
I’m the parent of a child with a genetic condition who has a fever and cough. She is being tested for coronavirus and is living in her apartment in quarantine. I leave food near her closed door and see her from a distance, through a closed window – we wave and throw kisses.
This experience being a reassuring and trustworthy parent has heightened my awareness of what people all over the planet are experiencing. We are unable to embrace the people we care about with our arms, so we embrace them with our voices.
We're in this Together
From presidents to media relations assistants, we need to remember this in our role as communicators. We are talking to individuals who face myriad challenges, from unemployment to health concerns to family from whom they’re separated. We mustn’t forget that we, too, are in the trenches, and must understand that our words have the power to comfort, strengthen and direct.
In the near term, we have to examine our role in contributing to the well-being of our homes, our communities (whether neighborhood, religious or school), our towns and the wider world.
Our role is to provide accurate, empathetic communication with transparency, truthfulness and timeliness. We can help our profession rise to this occasion, helping people understand the unfolding situation compassionately, so that they can make the right decisions for themselves and for their loved ones.
Never before has communications had the power to help society in the way that it does just now.
Gil Bashe is managing partner, global health, Finn Partners. Follow him at: @Gil_Bashe
[Editor's Note: Gil Bashe will speak during a free, PRNEWS webinar March 25. Sponsored by Yonder, the webinar about communications and coronavirus is nearly full. Check here for the latest registration information or after the webinar for information about hearing a free replay of the session.]