Formed almost 75 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been the gold standard for public crises worldwide. Throughout its history, the agency has – as the saying goes – learned a thing or two. Beyond just its major scientific advances, the CDC has also determined that successfully managing a public health outbreak is determined by how you communicate during the crisis.
The CDC created “The CDC Field Epidemiology Manual,” which outlines everything an organization needs to know about managing a public health crisis. Specifically, Chapter 12 focuses on communicating during a crisis, and includes principles, tips and guidelines that senior living operators should understand and apply.
While many senior living operators have – and are executing – a solid communications strategy during COVID-19, some are not, leaving staff, residents, families and the community at large yearning for more information.
The CDC stresses four key principles of communicating during a crisis: empathy and caring; honesty and openness; dedication and commitment; and competence and expertise.
The organization also recommends communicators develop key messages that are routinely reinforced. The CDC manual outlines five steps for messaging during a crisis:
1. Start with empathy.
Acknowledge concerns and express understanding of how those affected are probably feeling. (i.e., We know COVID-19 is scary for our residents, staff and families.)
2. Identify and explain the public health threat.
Detail what you know and provide action steps, but don’t overpromise. Be straight. (i.e., COVID-19 is a very serious communal disease that jeopardizes the health of our residents. We are in contact with public health officials for guidance on reducing the risk of transmission.)
3. Explain what is currently known and unknown.
Be sure to provide details and timelines. (i.e., As of this morning, we have three residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, and they are being treated at the hospital. We are working with public health officials on investigating whether others may have been exposed.)
4. Explain what public health actions are being taken and why.
Share what agencies are advising your organization to do, actions that have (or have not) been implemented, present the dilemmas you face and foreshadow possible issues. (i.e., Due to this health situation, we are following CDC guidelines to restrict outside visitors, encouraging residents to socially distance, canceling communal dining services and switching to room service. In the coming days, we may have increased cases as our team assesses residents daily for changes in their health, but we are committed to resident well-being.)
5. Emphasize a commitment to the situation.
Convey urgency and how you will keep stakeholders informed as the situation evolves. (i.e., A core operational team is meeting daily to assess and monitor the situation, we are posting updates regularly to our website COVID-19 page, and we are emailing residents and families at 5 p.m. daily to let them know the latest.)
Communicating during a crisis requires planning, organization, and the ability to adjust as the situation unfolds. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be predictable and provide honest, helpful information that can reduce their anxiety and help them understand how you are managing the situation. If you do this, you will find greater support and understanding for your efforts as you deal with one of the biggest communications challenges you may ever encounter.