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Was Communication Key to Virus Mitigation?

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Decatur County has the highest “cases per capita” of the coronavirus in the State of Indiana. Is it a source of concern? Of course. A source of bewilderment? Perhaps. As a consultant, it provides a unique opportunity to assess crisis management communications, the corresponding values and opinions of residents who are impacted, and the resulting implications beyond our community, to other areas and demographics.

Calculations made from today’s reports (4-14) for the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) show Decatur County with 153 cases and a population of 26,794 (.0057 cases per capita,) so in other words, 5.7 significant cases for every 1,000 people in Decatur County. The actual figure of those infected is much higher due to the testing limitations. This outpaces every other county in the State. As of this writing, one could take out those with per capita rates of nearly 50% less, Franklin County (.0032) Marion County (.0032) and Ripley County (.0031) and Decatur County would be alarmingly higher, three or four times higher, than most every other County in the State. So what went wrong?

The rationale for that has been discussed, debated, and even analyzed by the State Department of Health, however the data is not the focus of this article but rather the backdrop. This discussion concerns the way the information is perceived, communicated, and valued, and provides a lesson in crisis management.

Given the announcements of the County’s lofty ranking, one would think that in general, residents would have been more careful and more diligent about adopting Health Department and CDC guidelines. In actuality, a large percentage of residents were. However, social media posts frequently mentioned dismay at stories of residents gathering with friends, in or out-of-town, having children play with those not part of their households, and making non-essential trips here or there. Speculation surrounded it involving a feeling of being invincible. Thinking “we’re okay” and not understanding the risk of spreading even without symptoms. Some asked, do they not care about friends, family, neighbors or community?

In my own lengthy Facebook post, I acknowledged that, “while there are a few reasons that force people out, others should force themselves to stay in.” Many were trying to understand the non-compliance, and my Facebook post appealing for a logical perspective lit up my page. The post received over 300 reactions and 365 shares, most in its first few hours. In the end, it took the County Commissioners increasing to a travel “warning” status to help improve compliance.

The immediate and intense reaction to my post led to some observational conclusions. Few if any who posted touched on what could be one of the major issues. Communication.

Potential Communication Impact

Quite possibly, the lack of compliance resulted from splintered communication surrounding expectations. It’s an ongoing problem I’ve seen in several rural communities. As I’ve written before, for crisis management to be successful, stellar and well-planned communication is imperative. However, most rural areas like Decatur County have a fractured communications infrastructure that leaves residents searching for information in multiple places, without a unified message.

This crisis provides a perfect example. The early messages at the most critical time of likely spread were not always coordinated, nor were the communication methods. Governmental units were feeling their way through the process, some attempted to utilize social media (but lacked strong followings) and they relied on traditional media (less utilized by younger generations) in disseminating information. At least one facility was promoting its preparations, at the time when people wanted and needed answers about the dangers and potential outcomes. An understaffed agency was trying to rally the call to action while emergency managers took another angle. Nonprofits were doing their own thing and focusing on several different messages, while most had an underlying concern for sustainability. In the public space, the chorus of “I didn’t know about this” or “where did you hear that” continued to grow louder. As a result, even more Facebook pages evolved, filling a perceived void, but watering down the effectiveness of all. In the end, as in many rural communities, there was no “one place” for residents to gather their information. The result is a lack of unified messages and no clear vision for what success looks like in managing this crisis.

Ironically, technology should make consistent messaging and coordinated information easier now more than ever. Yet, despite public outcries for a central information source, and half-hearted efforts over the years, a trusted repository ceases to exist locally. Unfortunately, despite the collaborative facades, what’s needed always stops short, inhibited by turf issues. Such issues are not unusual in smaller communities. A unified communication plan could eliminate these issues. For the greater good in all rural communities, they need to be resolved.

A crisis communication plan for any organization requires identifying a central leader who gets it and is supported at the top. A consistent voice carried by an accomplished and trusted orator is key to getting buy-in and developing a following. That might not always be the person at the top of the organization or entity. As a result, it takes a strong leader to recognize someone else has the skill set to accomplish the desired unity and strike the right chord. It may even require a “panel” of people representing the different players to deliver the desired messages with consistency and such could have worked well here.

In the end, a larger communication problem may have been what fueled the frustration expressed in social media surrounding non-compliance. It would be helpful to know just how many residents weren’t following the recommendations because “no one told me” or they lacked important information, verses those who simply didn’t appreciate the value of undertaking the recommended safety measures.

Either way, we can hope that coordinated efforts are yet another positive to evolve from the tragedies of this situation. Concern over who gets credit can’t get in the way of how quickly or efficiently information is distributed.

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