Overnight the world learned that President Trump and the First Lady both tested positive for COVID-19. I wish them a full recovery.

But our challenge isn’t that Trump has COVID-19; it’s that the nation does. And it didn’t have to be this way.

A Teachable Moment: Patterns of Crisis

We are in a very teachable moment.

Crises follow predictable patterns. One is that most harm in a crisis is self-inflicted. Sometimes the initial crisis event itself is self-inflicted. But even when it isn’t, most of the loss of trust, confidence, and competitive position is self-inflicted because of an ineffective response.

A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and severity of a crisis and the risks it represents, and to respond based on those risks. Donald Trump never did.

On January 28 Trump’s national security advisor told him that COVID-19 would be the single largest national security threat in his presidency.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative

On February 7 Trump admitted to Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is spread in the air and is more deadly than the flu.

Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier, with a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of the 200,000 fatalities would have been avoided.

Ten Crisis Missteps

In two of my books, Reputation Management and The Agony of Decision, I describe ten predictable missteps in a crisis:

  1. Ignore the problem. Trump did.
  2. Deny the significance of the problem. Trump did.
  3. Compartmentalize the problem or solution. Trump did.
  4. Tell misleading half truths. Trump did.
  5. Lie. Trump did.
  6. Tell only part of what you did. Trump did.
  7. Blame others for your failures. Trump did.
  8. Over-confess. On this one, Trump did not.
  9. Panic, leading to bad decision-making. Trump did.
  10. Shoot the messenger when you receive bad news. Trump did.

Trump has committed nine of the ten missteps when it comes to COVID-19.

The Human Consequences of the Missteps

COVID-19 cases on October 2, 202

Unlike other crises, this has had significant human consequence. At least 75 percent of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. would not have happened. And 150,000 people, according to Dr. Redlener, would still be alive.Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most significant challenges. Trump failed this leadership test. Given the magnitude of the failure of crisis response after Trump was fully aware of the risks, this may be the single worst failure of leadership in American history.

I have previously published that I believe Trump’s handling of COVID-19 to be the single worst handled crisis, and largest leadership failure, in American history.

Again, I wish both the President and the First Lady a full recovery. But perhaps now we can move to a national masking, social distancing, contract tracing, and testing policy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their biggest challenges.

In the COVID-19 crisis we see a contrast of leaders so stark that it can serve as a leadership laboratory for future generations to study.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shows a steady, compassionate, and urgent tone as he informs New Yorkers and the broader world about the reality of COVID-19 in his state. His briefings are direct, honest, consistent, and clear. He sprinkles his commentary with expressions of concern for health workers and hospital patients, he invokes his parents, his brother, and his daughters. And he tells the truth.

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, shows none of these qualities. He bungled the first two months of the pandemic in the U.S. He denied the severity of the virus and downplayed the risk of contagion. He alternates between the rosy – churches full at Easter – and the gloomy – social distancing for much longer. There is still not a whole-of-government response. Rather, there are fragments of a government response. He leaves it to governors to figure out supply chains, even as governors confess that they’re bidding against each other – and the federal government – to secure desperately-needed medical equipment.

President Trump heaps praise on himself and expects others to do as well. He recently bragged during a COVID-19 press briefing that he was the most popular person on Facebook.

Governor Cuomo, who, according to Politico, has a “long-standing revulsion to social media,” has nevertheless “rapidly emerged as an internet star.” (Earlier this week, #Cuomosexual was trending on Twitter.)

President Trump contradicts his own public health experts, who then have to clean up the mess in his absence. He improvises on the existence of testing equipment, medical equipment, and miracle drugs that don’t exist. He violates every principle of effective leadership in a crisis.

Winston Churchill admonished, “You must look at the facts because the facts look at you.” President Trump ignores the facts in front of him and invents new ones.

Trump insists on calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” even though the World Health Organization advises against naming diseases for a particular location because of the stigma involved. And last week the FBI warned about a wave of hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans in this country.

Since the pandemic started my team and I have been studying the best and worst practices in communicating in a COVID-19 world. The best include:

  1. Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values: Don’t dive directly into the facts. Create an emotional connection.
  2. Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
  3. Be direct, no euphemism: It’s confusing and causes unnecessary stress.
  4. Tell the truth, the whole truth: Your stakeholders are in this for the long term.
  5. Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: A narrow lens is inadequate.
  6. Remember that expectations are dynamic. Calibrate current expectations.
  7. Communicate through multiple levels and channels. Be consistent.
  8. Align on values: Provide detail appropriate to each level and circumstance.
  9. Convey a positive attitude: Convey urgency short of provoking panic.
  10. Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Effective leaders do.

Governor Cuomo scores on all elements of this scorecard. The President, sadly, misses the mark. Other leaders can learn from both.

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Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19

By Helio Fred Garcia

As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to  grow, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership has been advising clients and carefully studying communication by leaders across a range of sectors and forms of organization.

We have reviewed thousands of communications by CEOs, university presidents, NGO executive directors and secretaries general, and public officials. And we have identified patterns that help leaders and their organizations make smart choices and avoid inadvertent self-inflicted harm.

Seven Crises in  One

One of the foundational principles of effective crisis management is to name the problem accurately and to understand the true scope and likely risk of the crisis.

I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is actually seven crises in one. Think of these as seven different dimensions of the crisis. There’s a danger that a leader might be so focused on any one of the dimensions that he or she will miss the need to address the others. The seven dimensions of COVID-19 are these:

  1. Public Health Crisis: At its core COVID-19 is a public health crisis. Half a million people worldwide have gotten sick; tens of thousands have died. More will get sick and die before things get better. But  now in the United States the public health crisis includes a healthcare delivery system that is being strained to the breaking point. As hospitals in epicenters begin to fill up, there’s also a shortage of medical equipment and personal protective gear. Health workers are at risk, as are other patients.
  2. Business Crisis: COVID-19 presents a business problem for all forms of organizations. There is a cost impact, for most organizations a negative one. There  is a revenue impact, mostly negative; for some potentially catastrophic. There is disruption of operations. There is an HR impact.
  3. Economic Crisis: At the same time there is a significant economic crisis underway. The risk of falling into a major recession, very low two months ago, now is quite high. The markets have exhibited unprecedented volatility. Economic uncertainty is wearing on people and institutions.
  4. Information Crisis: From the beginning of the pandemic there has been significant incorrect information, incomplete information, and in some cases intentionally misleading information in the information ecosystem. This information crisis leads to significant misunderstanding about who is at risk of contracting the illness, who can transmit it, and what precautions are appropriate.
  5. Competence of Government Crisis: Not just in the U.S., but initially in China, Iran, and other nations the initial responses were bungled and the virus  spread. In the U.S. we have yet to see a whole of government response. Rather, we’ve seen a fragments of government response. Only in the third week of March, and the third month of COVID-19 in the U.S., are there sufficient tests and testing sites. But there is insufficient personal protective equipment for health workers, and a shortage of hand sanitizers, rubber gloves, and masks in retail stores.
  6. Social Crisis: People’s lives have been upended; many people are losing or at risk of losing their jobs. Supermarket shelves are bare. Many companies have ordered employees to work from home; schools are closed or have gone to virtual learning. But there has also been a rise of incivility, insult, and violence against people who have been stigmatized. President Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” has led to a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American.
  7. Mental Health Crisis: Human beings are social animals, and social distancing is having an effect. Compound this with the fear of the illness, the rising rate of infections and fatalities, and the other dimensions of the crisis, people are fraught. They are fragile. And they need extra care. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked for mental health professionals to volunteer to work with people not presently under their care to begin to meet this mental health need. I expect other governors will do the same.

 

Everything is Different

The unprecedented scope of the crisis makes it difficult to predict what will happen next. This crisis is unlike others. Among the differences:

  • This is unlike prior pandemics. This is the first global pandemic in a social media world. Recent pandemics were geographically contained. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was mostly confined to the Republic of Korea. Ebola was contained in the United States, and our military and public health experts were able to contain it in West Africa. And this is the first truly global pandemic in the lifetimes of most people in leadership positions.
  • This is unlike natural disasters. Most organizations are ready or can adapt to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods. But those are generally geographically confined and are sudden but short in duration. COVID-19 is widespread and will continue for a very long time.
  • This is not like ordinary corporate crises. Most corporate crises are limited to a particular company, sector, or geography. But this one affects every organization. And unlike most corporate crises, this one has the additional dimensions of public health, economic risk, information challenges, competence of government, and social dislocation.
  • The situation is constantly changing. The scope of contagion, the government and society’s response to it, and our understanding of risk to ourselves are in constant flux. In a matter of days we saw an escalation from no large crowds to no crowds at all to stay-at-home orders to full lock-down orders.
  • This is fundamentally reshaping our understanding of work. As millions of American workers learn how to work from home, and as companies experiment with different modes of delivering products and services, the likelihood of a return to pre-COVID-19 conditions is not clear.

Crisis Response Best Practices

Most ineffective crisis responses begin with leaders asking some version of What should we do? Or What should we say? The challenge with this kind of question is that it focuses on the we – on the entity or leader in crisis. This results in the consideration of options that may make the leader in midst of crisis feel less vulnerable. But it is unlikely to lead to what is necessary to maintain trust, confidence, and support of those people whose trust, confidence, and support are critical to the organization.

What is needed is a different kind of thinking that begins not with the I/me/we/us but rather with the they/them – with the stakeholders who matter to the organization. The leadership discipline of mental readiness – the readiness to shift frames of reference from the first person — I/me/we/us — to the third person — they/them — makes all the difference.

And that’s because of the way trust works.

A common goal for most organizations and leaders in crises is to maintain the trust and confidence of those who matter – shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, residents, citizens, voters, etc. Trust is what makes other elements of competitive advantage possible, from stock price to employee morale and productivity to support of  regulators.

Trust, in turn, is the consequence of three related but slightly different things:

  1. Promises fulfilled. These can be explicit promises, or implicit promises such as in a brand identity. If we are seen to break a promise, trust falls.
  2. Expectations met. These can be expectations we set ourselves, such as by making promises. Or they can be expectations set by law or by government order. Or they can be expectations set by society. If we fail to meet expectations, trust falls.
  3. Values lived.  When those who matter to us experience us as living our stated values, the result is trust. If those who matter to us experience us as not living our stated values, trust falls.

And one of the patterns we notice is that it is much harder to restore trust once it has been lost than to maintain trust before it has been lost.

Asking What should we do? runs the serious risk of failing even to consider stakeholders’ expectations. Worse, it further risks the leader becoming stuck in his or her own perspective, in I/me/we/us. Hence, such crisis whoppers as BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” or even President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

Most crisis response failures can be traced back to the ultimate decision-makers focusing on their own frame of reference rather than on their stakeholders.

The right question to ask when determining the appropriate course of action in a crisis is not What should we do.

Rather, it is this: What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do when facing this kind of situation?

For any stakeholder group we can answer the question, What would reasonable members of this stakeholder group appropriately expect a responsible organization or leader to do? to a very granular level. To the level of all employees, or only those employees in this one facility, or only those employees who were present when something happened. We can inventory those granular expectations  for each stakeholder group, and we can then work to fulfill those particular expectations.

But regardless the particular expectations of any given stakeholder group, there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholder groups all the time:  In a crisis, all stakeholders expect a responsible organization or leader to care.  To care that something has happened; to care that people need help; to care that something needs to be done.

What it means to care may be different from crisis to crisis, or from industry to industry. What it means to care in the early phases of the crisis may be different from what it means to care in the later phases of the crisis. But that we need to care doesn’t change.

The single largest predictor that trust will fall is the perception of indifference. And silence, when there is an expectation of caring, is interpreted by stakeholders as indifference. And it gives our adversaries, critics, media and social media, and trolls the ability to define us as uncaring, or incompetent, or as lacking integrity.

Applying Best Practices to COVID-19 Communication

As the Logos Institute team has studied institutional response to COVIID-19, we have derived these  lessons applying the principle of caring to the pandemic.

  1. Begin all communication, whether written or verbal, with a statement of values, or belief, or intent, or motivation. Don’t dive directly into the facts. Audiences are far more likely to read or listen, understand, and remember when the leader creates an emotional connection first, and that begins with the statement of values.
  2. Show you care. Calibrate communication with empathy.
  3. Be direct: No euphemism. Euphemism is confusing to audiences, especially when under stress. If an employee has died because of COVID-19, say so.
  4. Tell the truth: Avoid misleading half-truths. Remember that you’re in this for the long term. And eventually you’ll need employees to continue to want to work for you, and customers to want to do business with you. If you know that layoffs are likely, and you’re asked whether there will be layoffs, it may be tempting to say something literally true — “At this point there is no plan to lay people off.” This may be true, but the question was not about whether there is a plan but rather about whether there would be layoffs. A better response would be “We haven’t made a final decision, and we will do whatever we can to protect employees, but layoffs are a possibility.”
  5. Address all relevant dimensions of the crisis: public health, business crisis, economic crisis, information crisis, competence of government crisis, social crisis, and mental health crisis. It may be tempting to stay in a single frame, say, business crisis. But your stakeholders are experiencing all seven dimensions of the crisis.
  6. Remember that expectations are dynamic. Yesterday’s expectations may not be helpful today. Calibrate against current expectations.
  7. Communicate at multiple levels. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear from more than the CEO. At this point it is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
  8. Align on values; allow granular detail appropriate to each level. Whether the CEO or an EVP or VP or department head or project team leader, there should be alignment on the level of values, belief, intent, or motive. But at each level the granularity should be appropriate to the level of the leader doing the communication.
  9. Convey a positive attitude that balances urgency against the provoking of panic. Effective leaders keep the focus on the future even while demonstrating urgency. But emotions themselves are contagious. Leaders need to stop short of provoking panic.
  10. Express emotion, vulnerability, and humility. Arrogance makes empathy impossible, and it is empathy that gets leaders and organizations through a crisis. Leaders are often reluctant to express emotion or vulnerability. But the most effective ones do.
  11. Get good at being on TV. Whether recording a video for public consumption or conducting a meeting via Zoom or Skype  or GoToMeeting, leaders need to get good at communicating through a video camera.
  12. Remember, people are feeling very fragile. People are scared; they’re worried about their jobs and their friends and their families. People’s work lives and personal lives have been upended. And some people are being stigmatized. Now is a time that calls for kindness. Effective leaders care.

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Kristin Johnson Kristin Johnson | Bio | Posts
7 Oct 2014 | 5:25PM

A contagious disease – first presenting in several West African countries – is now a pandemic, crossing continents and striking virulent fear in the U.S., Spain and around the world.

  •  The virus incubates.
  •  Victims often do not realize they are infected.
  •  Millions around the world – including those right here in the U.S. – are afflicted. 
  •  There can be deadly consequences. 
  •  I am not referring to Ebola.

Diagnosis

The malady I speak of is miscommunication, with side effects including misinformation, confusion and fear that drive outcomes at every level of community response.

Communication – or lack of – is what is arguably at the center of disease control and care. Ebola is no exception. While Ebola is infectious – meaning that it is likely to spread upon exposure – the actual transmission, or contagiousness of the disease, is reportedly low given transmission is from contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.

Miscommunication, however, is highly contagious and on the rise.

The Spread of Miscommunication

Today, news emerged that a Spanish nurse tested positive for Ebola after minimal exposure. According to a report on NPR quoting Dr. Antonio Alemany, a health official from the regional government of Madrid, the nurse “entered the infected priest’s room twice – once to treat him and once after he died to collect some of his things” and as far as health official know, the nurse “was wearing a protective suit the whole time and didn’t have any accidental contact with him.”

Miscommunication changes everything about what we thought we understood about the spread of the deadly disease, Ebola, and risk management. Fears are now elevated among healthcare workers, governments, media and people around the world because doubt has been cast on what we thought we knew about transmission. If the nurse, suited in protective gear, gets sick after minimal contact with an infected patient, what does that mean for the rest of us? There is no central, trusted authority on this issue to address this question or the many others being raised in the 24-hour news cycle world. The U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) hasn’t updated the “latest news” portion of its website in more than 48 hours.

Instead, media outlets – competing with each other for viewers and readers – are spitting out puzzle pieces of a larger story in a rush to be the ‘breaking news’ source, which is spreading alarm worldwide. Uncertainly is leading to panic and, in the absence of a clear solution, a public outcry to simply do something – without a clear assessment of actions and outcomes.

Symptoms Rising

The pressure to do something is mounting. Just this morning, there were calls for the resignation of Spain’s health minister, Ana Mato, in response to the “safety lapse” after the nurse’s infection. In the U.S., there are cries to shut down U.S. borders to anyone who has been to West Africa and the White House, which objects to blocking flights from West Africa, is in discussion to appoint CDC staffers to certain airports to screen passengers. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy today declared Ebola a public health emergency, signing an order for state health officials to quarantine individuals or groups “exposed to the virus or, worst case, infected.”

According to Sarah Crowe, UNICEF’s chief of crisis communications, in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review online, “It’s all so new that you can’t say that any one organization had figured out protocols. It’s unmapped terrain, whether you’re at it from child protection to precautions for the media.”

While the disease – which brings the prospect of isolation and death – is terrifying, the confusion over risk, containment and care is what truly is driving fear and potentially dangerous, impulse responses. It’s fight or flight, challenging humans’ most basic needs to preserve physiological wellness and safety (Maslow).

While there may be authorities that do fully understand Ebola – including risk, containment and care – it takes coordination on the part of governments, health care institutions, care providers, media and communities to manage the communication. This includes the ability to impart urgency for resources, discipline in safety protocols and transmission risk to vulnerable populations.  It is also of paramount to get the right message to the right audience at the right time. But that is where we, as a world, are struggling.

Some public health specialists now speculate an asymptomatic person infected with Ebola could spread the virus to others. Dr. Philip K. Russell, a virologist who, according to LA Times online, “oversaw Ebola research while heading the U.S. Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, and who later led the government’s massive stockpiling of smallpox vaccine after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks” acknowledged that we are working with an unknown. According to Dr. Russell, “scientifically, we’re in the middle of the first experiment of multiple, serial passages of Ebola virus in man….God knows what this virus is going to look like. I don’t.”

In Search of a Cure

While statements such as Dr. Russell’s discourage hope of clarity any time soon on the disease management of Ebola, what we do have is a strategy to combat miscommunication: ordered thinking.

Pulling from The Power of Communication, by Helio Fred Garcia, it is important to never confuse means with ends or goals and strategies with tactics. In order to at the very least provide some guidance to a world that is impulsively responding to the terror of uncertainty, a unity of effort on three levels can help foster clarity:

(From The Power of Communication, Chapter 6)

  • Strategy: The strategic level is focused directly on the objective, beginning with the desired outcomes. Define the audience(s) and ask “what do we need people to think, feel, know and do” in order to achieve the goal?
  • Operations: The operational level is focused on anticipating and adapting to the audience(s). The best manner, time, message and messenger should all be considered in this to better address concerns, fears and trust.
  • Tactics: The tactical level is where communication with the audience(s) takes place.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The miscommunication pandemic we are dealing with is greater than Ebola.  Why?

Ebola alone is not a global health problem; it is a global health problem because its contagion, containment and care protocols are unclear.

As a result of this uncertainty – a communication problem on many levels – the infections and fear are multiplying.

Among the inconsistency, speculation and chaos surrounding Ebola, the world needs a trusted authority to emerge with calm guidance and a clear message to help address the fear. But among all the uncertainty, it seems only more questions develop.

Today I ask, who will this authority be and, in the absence of a cure, what messages will this person deliver? Do you agree that a communication issue is at the center of this pandemic? Feedback welcome.