FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS – The importance of clear crisis communication

Published: 2020-05-01

As a linguistic expert, the way in which human beings interact and how communication dynamics work have always fascinated me. As an executive assistant, I have had many chances to observe how human communication happens in the business environment and how the human aspect in it can impact the outcome of a negotiation, the success of a project, the well-being of the people involved in the process.

As a dog trainer – that's my other area of expertise – I have dug into communication dynamics with other beings, whose communication code is not spoken language, and I can see how the best dog/handler pairs (and happiest dogs) are the ones in which communication flow is smooth, easy, clean and clear. For dogs, A is always A, B is always B. No hints, no shades. The clearer the sign, the lesser number of words used, the clearer the message, the higher the chance to get a proper feedback and to understand each other.

As a recluse during the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how important communication is, when it comes to a matter of life or death. Communication regarding the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy has been and still is a matter for a case study. Do you expect experts to go by the book about crisis management? You will be disappointed. Everyting that could be done wrong, was done wrong.

Time-wise, we had two phases: Before the outburst and during the outburst. Content-wise, the matters covered are countless, ranging from how to wash your hands to complot theories, from how to entertain your kids to how to entertain your elders (and how to entertain yourself in-between).

Phase One, pre-outburst: The Covi19 topic has been overexposed in the media, discussed 24/7, as if it was a case, dissected by anybody from politicians to virologists, from entrepreneurs to sportsmen, from starlettes to journalists. Everybody had their opinions – no, not scientific data to be revealed and commented upon by the scientist who had worked all day in the laboratory- yet everyone knew about it and talked about it. They almost immediately split up into two groups: Either the virus was a killer, or “just a bit more serious than a flu”. And “we” could never understand exactly what it was.

Phase Two, the outburst: People were already fed up with it, and would not listen anymore. Bottom line: It took a good while for everybody to realize how serious things were, and a good while to realize that it was not “just a bit more serious than a flu”.

Still, the daily numbers given by Civil Protection never added up to a clear picture, leaving you puzzled once again. The number of positive cases was announced as an apocalyptic number, but when exposed as percentage on the entire population or on the number of tests made, it seemed extremely low. Numbers of fatalities suggested a massacre, and were treated as such in the media titles...until somebody shyly pointed out that, statistically speaking, the number of deaths was lower than the total number of deaths in the same period last year. The number of people completely recovered NEVER made the news headlines, and it sometimes did not even make it to the titles, yet it has always been double than the numbers of people who died. Bottom line: The more you read and listened, the more confused you got, and the more convinced that ...maybe this was not the real truth, especially when you did the math: The total number of positive cases should equal the numbers of new ill people today, plus the people who were already ill yesterday and still are, plus

the number of asymptomatic people, minus the dead, minus the recovered. I have done the math every day, and 2+2 has never given 4. What the hell was going on there?

Speaking of storytelling, the choice of words to name and describe the virus has been equally divided into two main semantic areas: The monster and the enemy. The first takes you into the realm of horror, of nightmares, of FEAR. The second takes you into the realm of war. And we have already learnt that the best way to control people is by fear, and by giving them an (artificial?) enemy to fight, possibly an invisible, indefinite, unpredictable one. So much for complot theories denial.

Amongst the fog of numbers and under the pressure to go to war fed by the media, people tended to follow more gladly unofficial channels like social media platforms, thus running into fake news, which was sometimes more believable than the true ones and which went viral in the wink of an eye.

Speaking of laws and rules, they changed at least once a day, and before you asked yourself if you were abiding to them, you needed to go check for the latest and most updated version, possibly on Government websites in order to avoid confusion and fakes, only to find out that they were more confused than anybody else (I think we had up to 5 different versions of the same official pass document to go outside). The clearest of the rules normally goes like this: you CANNOT go out, unless you need to. So you CAN go out, but if the need is not a good enough need, the police will fine you. Ok... And who decides if I really need what I need? Me? So, what happens if I go “there”? I have made an experiment: I have asked for suggestion in five different chats (evenly divided with physicians, policemen, lawyers, local authorities as well as normal citizens with no technical expertise or knowledge) and my network came up with five different answers on the same case.

So there you are: You live in a small village alongside a lake, with only one, small food shop you usually ignore, as it offers not even half of what you need for your dietary needs, at double price than the big supermarket in another municipality 5 kilometres away from home, where under the coronavirus regime you cannot go, because it is in not inside the border of your village and your village has a food point. And you don’t know what to do, because things are not clear at all: Am I allowed to go there according to my needs, or not? So you risk it, and every time you go out for FOOD – at said supermarket that is the only one where you can really find what you really need not to starve or go bankrupt – you feel like a smuggler in the Twenties, taking to backroads in the hope they will not find you. Not because you are sure you are breaking the law, but because you don’t know if you are, and you know...just in case, let’s stay on the safe side. Surreal.

So, barring any complot theory of mass control (in which case, they cooked up a real masterpiece of communication), when it is a matter of life or death, you need clear messages. There is no room for uncertainty, for hints, for shades. A should always be A, B should always be B. Maybe, we should let the dogs do the talking.

Silvia Salomon

National Chairman IMA Italy

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