Crisis Communication: Lessons from NY State

Over the last three months watching Governor Andrew Cuomo address the state of New York was refreshing – like drinking a cold glass of water after walking for miles through the blistering hot desert. If we can set aside politics for a moment, we can learn some core principals of communication through the dialogue occurring in the state of New York as it responded to Covid-19. These principles also apply to small cities and rural communities that are facing economic hardship.

Before the pandemic started, my main role at the IC2 Institute at UT Austin was working with communities on new economic development strategies to create a culture of innovation. We heard problems that spanned from retaining young people, recruiting business talent, access to capital, and building local partnerships to enhance entrepreneurship and innovation.

Communicating during a time of crisis is a major challenge for businesses, communities, and governments. In their book Effective Crisis Communication: Moving from Crisis to Communication, the authors define an organizational crisis as a “specific unexpected and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten an organization’s high priority goals.” The Covid-19 pandemic created simultaneous health and economic crises for the U.S., but especially New York state. How did New York go from the epicenter of the outbreak to dramatically bending their curve toward low, new daily infections? Let’s explore:

Takeaways from Governor Andrew Cuomo daily briefings:

    • Consistency is key – For the last three months New Yorkers and much of the nation watched Governor Cuomo give daily briefings using the same format: key metrics, update on the plan or status of re-opening, values, stories, and questions from the press. Massey (2001) found that organizations that produce consistent messages across their audience will enhance their credibility and legitimacy. The organization of daily briefings provide a unified message, a consistent format and flow and ease of understanding key messages.
    • Start with the facts – Each briefing starts with the key metrics the state of New York is tracking. In the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, the governor began each briefing with the numbers: total hospitalizations, net change in total hospitalizations, new COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, and number of lives lost. As the state reopened, the metrics became the daily testing rate and was linked with the infection rate. This strategy focuses citizens on one set of data, which allows people to make informed decisions about their risks. The data is used to support policy decisions about social distancing, opening the economy or possible future restrictions.
    • Share the plan – After going through the key metrics the governor tells the audience what it means for them and how to stay safe. Certain topics include wear a mask, how certain regions will reopen, and to continue to socially distance. Combs (2006) states that during a crisis, organizations should craft messages that instruct the public so that people know what to do to protect themselves. One major problem with data is that people often don’t know what it means for them. Using this part of the briefing, citizens have a clear sense of what actions they need actions to take to stay safe.
    • Display common values – Early on Governor Cuomo asserted that New York is tough, smart, united, disciplined, and loving. And it wasn’t a one-time event for viewers to see these values for the last 3 months – it was consistent. Starting in 1973 social psychologist Milton Rokeach described values as fundamental beliefs and unwritten standards that guide behavior and judgment across situations. The impact of displaying values allows people to coordinate their actions and behaviors. Values create unity and fight against dissention and division. Thus, by highlighting values, the governor rallied New Yorkers to accept difficult public policy and safety decisions. The collective action centered around the values of New Yorkers have dramatically brought down infection rates to the lowest in the country.
    • Link Values to Strategy – From common value statements, the governor highlighted a story or strategies that guided New Yorkers decision-making and behavior. From a farmer in Kansas who donated masks to stories of local health care workers on the front lines.  McLagan and Nel (1995) identified values as the first critical step for employee commitment to any new business direction. Creating commitment to common goals may be the most important step when it comes to leadership. Further, people need examples, how to live out these values to achieve common goals. One effective way to do this is by telling stories. Stories teach people how to conduct themselves during uncertain times. Remember that people have a hard time remembering data but an easier time recalling stories.

So, what does this mean for communities and cities moving forward?

    • Transparency and constant communication matter. Leaders must start thinking about how often they communicate, where are the core channels people use, and what message do they want to share with their community. By communicating accurate information in a timely manner, you build trust with your citizens. The old model is to have a public information officer push out press releases but communication has changed.
    • Develop key metrics – Each community needs to decide what it wants to track. Start small by tracking over a short period of time. Do not get caught in the long planning trap that most cities adopt. By focusing in on 3 to 6-month period, interim measurements can inform decision-making and support course changes if something is not working. This saves money, time and sometimes lives.
    • Answer the question, what does our community value? Start by asking people what do they enjoy about living here? Or working here? Once you know – display these values clearly and often! This is a step that people often skip or pretend to care about. When people know what you value it can increase cohesion and attract likeminded individuals.
    • Share Community Stories — Once you articulate key values, start sharing stories of people and businesses that embody the values within your community. This will give outsiders a better understanding of who you are as a community and allow local citizens to rally around the people and businesses that they love.