Coronavirus crisis communications - a primer

The Israeli government needs an expert spokesperson to honestly and competently handle the corona crisis

MK Gila Gamliel.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
MK Gila Gamliel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israeli government needs an expert spokesperson to honestly and competently handle the corona crisis
According to all public opinion surveys, Israelis have lost confidence in their government’s handling of the corona crisis. This is largely because of the helter-skelter and fickle character of government decision-making, and due to the hypocrisy of some senior decision makers who brazenly have violated the behavioral restrictions they imposed on the average man and woman in the street.
If the elites don’t know what they’re doing and arrogantly accord themselves with VIP freedoms not available to the everyday Abraham and Sarah, it is no wonder that Abe and his wife feel confusion and contempt toward their political leaders.
There is a third albeit less central reason that the public no longer trusts the government’s say-so regarding corona: Because there is no professional spokesperson in this war on corona who can deliver reliable (and as consistent as possible) messages to the public.
Neither the prime minister nor the health minister nor the corona “czar” ought to be the day-to-day spokesman on behalf of the government at this time. (And who decided on the ridiculous and dictatorial moniker “czar” for this position?)
Israel needs a seasoned communications expert to strategize, coordinate and deliver government messaging, both within and between government agencies and departments as well as to the broader public.
I learned many lessons about crisis communications on the job, as the spokesman of Bar-Ilan University in the months and years following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was a crisis of global proportions. The evil assassin was a kippah-wearing law and religious studies student at the university, and the Israeli media and public (and then the international media) unloaded much of its anger and grief over the murder on the university. (Unjustifiably so, but that is another conversation).
Here are six lessons I learned from that difficult professional assignment; lessons that are applicable to the communications management of most major crises including the acute corona situation currently facing Israel.
1. DEFINE OBJECTIVES. It is important to distinguish between different communications goals and to define strategy accordingly.
Roughly speaking, there five separate objectives that can delineated in a crisis situation: a) conveying information, b) generating support for a specific policy, person or organization, c) preventing worse outcomes or judgments, d) articulating the rationale for a decision (note: It is as important to do so within an organization or a government as it is outside that body), and e) calming a situation.
In the current corona crisis, all five of these goals are relevant, especially the last three, and the Israeli government has fallen almost criminally short in these areas.
2. TAKE CONTROL of the message. The responsibility for communications in a crisis should be consolidated in one spokesperson or department, to ensure maximum coordination and on-target messaging, making best use of available resources.
Obviously, this is difficult to do when you have 700 professors, each of whom insists on speaking their mind (“academic freedom!”), or 50 ministers and deputy ministers from rival political parties in the cabinet, along with dozens of relevant senior officials across many ministries, each of whom claims to know best.
Nevertheless, by investing ultimate communications responsibility in an expert figure and making it clear that only their say-so constitutes formal policy that is binding and authoritative, an organization or a government under siege can rise above the cacophony and demonstrate seriousness and accountability.
3. ENSURE INTEGRATIVE messaging. The organizational or government spokesperson must be an integral part of the internal decision-making process, not just an adjunct functionary or external advisor. He or she must be privy to all information and assessments, and should participate in every strategy meeting so that communications considerations and advantages and disadvantages are built-in to every major decision.
Over time, even know-it-all and media-hungry Israeli politicians likely will learn that a built-in communications confidant is in their own best interests. (In a worst-case scenario, it gives them someone else to blame, too).
4. BE TRANSPARENT and truthful. Even the small stuff eventually gets out (like, say, Sara Netanyahu’s haircut or Nadav Argaman’s dinner party). The public can smell a white lie from Eilat to Metulla, right through microwave television broadcasts and across fiber-optic Internet cables.
Therefore, hide almost nothing, be constantly available, and always tell the truth. (Or at least tell most of truth in real time; some truths sometimes need to be delayed). Remember: Equivocation breeds distrust, and lies lead to contempt. Humility (“I don’t yet know”) builds authenticity, and candor will be perceived as genuine, especially when delivering bad or inconvenient news.
Never ever insist on something by referring to “secret” information or “eyes-only” assessments, as Israel’s leaders wrongly have done several times in recent months regarding the pandemic. That is a sure-fire recipe for ridicule and disbelief among the listening public. You have to level with the public, not bamboozle it.
5. COMMUNICATE CONSISTENT messages. It is critical to have a steady hand at the helm, with a constant refrain of clear communiques.
This, of course, presupposes consistent policy, such as cautionary restrictions on prayers and protests that do not change every 2.5 hours. And when a spokesman is party to erratic policies, or is forced to justify policy that necessarily vacillates at a dizzying speed (because of the nature of the virus and its changing effects on public health), the spokesperson’s credibility is going to take a beating.
But that is the nature of the challenge. A polished, sincere and wise spokesperson should be able to explain to the public even roller-coaster rulings and topsy-turvy determinations. If the spokesperson is consistent and candid most of the time, there will be a reservoir of reliability available when some obfuscation or an about-face is required.
6. HUMANIZE AND personalize the project. It drives me crazy to hear dry corona statistics leading every morning’s broadcasts (so many dead, so many infected, etc.) without any names or biographies. Why aren’t we seeing the faces, and learning about the lives of those unfortunate Israelis hardest hit by the pandemic?
This is a gargantuan error; a communications misplay that has both practical and moral implications. I have no doubt that color coverage of ill and dying Israelis, including those who have “recovered” from the virus (yet still have months of side-effects to overcome) would usefully scare the public into much-improved compliance with corona behavior guidelines. (Perhaps this might increase charitable giving and humanitarian volunteering by the public, too.)
If the current pandemic is to be considered a “war” that can only be won by the entire public, like military conflict with Israel’s jihadist enemies that needs total communal commitment (and it is that), then the human side of the tragedies involved must be made apparent. When at war, act accordingly.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, His personal site is