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The Pandemic Tunnel – Guidance for Education Officials

What to Say to Students, Employees, Students, Parents, Taxpayers, Colleagues & Other Stakeholders
This Winter about COVID-19 and the Vaccine

By Dr. Peter Sandman
(abridgement by Bruce Hennes)

Editor’s Note from Bruce Hennes, CEO, Hennes Communications:  Given mixed, confusing and contradictory messages coming from government officials, public health experts and the media about the pandemic and the vaccines coming on line, we felt it necessary to provide our clients with clear guidance for what to say to their stakeholders.  To that end, we asked Dr. Peter Sandman, one of the country’s preeminent experts on the subject of “risk communication” to offer learned guidance.  Sandman was one of the authors of the industry bible, “Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication,” the 450-page guide published by the CDC.  Especially given the likelihood that things will get worse before they get better, it’s up to education leaders to communicate clearly and consistently on this important subject.  We hope this article helps.

The vaccine news is incredibly good.  Vaccines are coming much sooner and turning out much more effective than we dared hope.  By this time next year life will be a lot closer to normal.  But even though we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re still in the tunnel.

As we move through this tunnel, government officials, public health experts, and others leading us through the pandemic need new messages suitable for this new moment.  But communications shouldn’t stop there.  Your school should also be prepared with what to say to all of your stakeholders.  Here are some suggestions.

First do this:

  • Show people you understand how difficult this is. Misery is more bearable when it’s validated.  Acknowledging people’s misery won’t make them more miserable.  It will make them feel better understood.
  • Talk a little (but not too much) about the ways you’re struggling, too. Then segue to empathy for people whose situations are worse than yours.  And invite your audience to offer help to people whose situations are worse than theirs.

Then do this:

  • Temper vaccine expectations. Stress that we must all still be patient – for sufficient doses and for the vaccine to take effect, for people to regain confidence, for an economic recovery and for the new normal to feel normal.
  • Pay attention to vaccine side effects. They’re minor in most cases, but they can feel pretty major if people haven’t been forewarned.  It’s also crucial to warn that by coincidence, some people will inevitably die or get very sick shortly after being vaccinated – through no fault of the vaccine.
  • Warn about humongous logistical glitches — not just in vaccine distribution, but also in vaccine manufacturing. This is crucial so people don’t overreact when the vaccine rollout hits bumps in the road.
  • Remind people of all the vaccine unknowns. The biggies: how long immunity lasts and to what extent vaccinated people can still get asymptomatic infections and transmit the virus.  Masks, social distancing, and the rest will still be necessary, at least for a while, even for people who have been vaccinated.
  • Predict controversy about who gets vaccinated when.  There will be questions about who’s allowed to skip to the front of the line, who’s allowed to linger at the back, and especially how groups in the middle are prioritized.
  • Express and urge respect for people with a different vaccine attitude than your own. Let’s not berate those who hesitate to get vaccinated. Most of the holdouts will find it easier to change their minds if the rest of us respect their preference to hang back for a while to see how things go.
  • Talk about the worst-case scenario that could possibly happen. Vaccinated people still transmit the virus; immunity lasts a shorter time than expected; too many people don’t get vaccinated; for the foreseeable future COVID-19 remains a significant public health threat forcing us to figure out what a new normal looks like.
  • Talk about the best-case scenario that could possibly happen. Vaccination turns out to prevent both illness and transmission; immunity lasts a long time; everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated by early summer; so many people get vaccinated that COVID-19 stops being a major public health threat and life gets back to something like it was before.
  • Keep saying that masks and social distancing are still important. Reinforce the health experts who are saying it will be months before enough people are vaccinated to make a difference.  The vaccines will help sooner if we all take steps to reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Explicitly connect precaution-taking to the vaccine rollout. Don’t urge people to be careful “even though” vaccines are on the way.  Urge people to be careful because vaccines are on the way.  But acknowledge that the imminence of a vaccine solution will tempt some people to take more risks – and then urge them to resist the temptation. 

Next, do this: 

  • Call a truce. U.S. pandemic response has been politicized and polarized beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s time to cease hostilities.  A key element of the truce is messaging encouraging citizens on both sides to stop blaming “them” even if they’re still blaming you.
  • Acknowledge pandemic fatigue. We’re all sick of taking precautions.  We’re all cutting more corners than we used to.  Put pandemic fatigue on the table, especially if you’re the person whose pandemic policies are fatiguing people.
  • Acknowledge pandemic uncertainty. We have all listened while experts serve up pandemic information inconsistent with what other experts are saying.  Even the experts are full of uncertainties, though they often have trouble admitting it.
  • Acknowledge pandemic hostility. Some of us are blowing up at what feels like other people’s insufficient precautions.  Some of us are blowing up at what feels like other people’s intrusive insistence that we’re not being careful enough.  Nearly all of us are blowing up at minor irritations.  Encourage people to cut some slack for each other…and themselves.
  • Point to the ways we’re pulling together. Bandwagoning works far better than finger-wagging.  People want to do what their friends and neighbors are doing.  We should focus on the majority who are wearing masks and planning to get vaccinated, rather than rant about the minority who aren’t.

Finally, do this: 

  • Acknowledge the loss of trust. Trust in experts and officials has taken a severe and largely justified hit in this pandemic.  Experts and officials have been consistently overconfident as they oscillated wildly between underreacting and overreacting to the COVID-19 threat.
  • Lean on common sense. People are relying more on their own common sense than on what experts and officials are saying.  So your messaging needs to appeal more to common sense.  It’s still important to tell people what experts recommend and what officials demand.  But it’s just as important to connect official recommendations and demands to common sense.  It’s no longer enough to tell people that it’s “the science” or “the law.”  Tell people why you think it’s sensible.
  • Build the individualistic case for pandemic precautions. People in strongly authoritarian countries obey draconian pandemic regulations.  People in strongly communitarian countries feel responsible for strangers’ welfare.  But fierce individualism is central to American national identity.  That’s why we need to frame more messaging in terms of helping people decide what is best for themselves and for their loved ones.
  • Talk about whether the rules are reasonable. Explain the reasoning behind the rules, especially if they’re your rules.  Ideally you want people not just to obey the rules, but also to accept the reasoning behind the rules, so they can figure out their own “rules” for themselves.  And if you have to promulgate or enforce rules that are a little arbitrary, come out of the closet and say so.

The next few months indeed demand a truce.  We’re not stuck in the tunnel.  We’re moving through it.  We’ll get out of it faster, with less pain, if we move forward together.

Dr. Sandman’s original version of this article was longer than the one above; it is on his website at http://www.psandman.com/col/Corona35b.htm.

————- 

Dr. Peter Sandman is one of the country’s preeminent experts on the subject of “risk communication.”  Sandman was one of the authors of the industry bible, “Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication,” the 450-page guide published by the CDC.

Creator of the “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula for risk communication, Dr. Sandman has helped his clients through a wide range of public controversies that threatened corporate or government reputation,  from oil spills and labor-management battles to vaccine autism scares and the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In the terms first popularized by Dr. Sandman, these are usually situations where the “hazard” is low, the “outrage” is high, and the core task is outrage management.

Dr. Sandman has also worked on the other side of risk issues that include helping activists arouse concern about serious hazards and helping companies persuade employees to take safety rules seriously.  Here the task is precaution advocacy in a high-hazard, low-outrage situation.

Finally, Dr. Sandman works on crisis communication, including terrorist attacks and epidemics, where hazard and outrage are both high and the goal is to help people bear their emotions and take appropriate actions.

A Rutgers University professor from 1977 to 1995, Dr. Sandman was a full-time consultant from 1995 until he started retiring in 2018.  He came out of retirement in early 2020 to try to help with COVID-19 pandemic risk communication.

Dr. Sandman’s website, www.psandman.com, addresses a wide range of risk communication challenges; his COVID-19 writing is indexed at http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#corona.

Bruce M. Hennes is the Chief Executive Officer of Hennes Communications, a crisis management and crisis communications consulting firm based in Cleveland.  Long a fan of Dr. Sandman’s work, Hennes persuaded him to write an article about what he thinks the key pandemic messages should be right now.  Hennes worked with Dr. Sandman on this abridgement.

The Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) has entered into a strategic partnership with Hennes Communications to provide crisis management and communications services to public school systems throughout the state of Ohio facing sudden challenges to their organizations’ reputations and operations. With this partnership, OSBA member school leaders have access 365 days a year to expert crisis communications professionals.  For more information, please call 216-321-7774 or by email to [email protected]

© Peter Sandman 2021  All Rights Reserved

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