Coronavirus: leaders need to rethink how they get their message across

During crises especially, there is good reason for heads of states to be well informed and precise in their communication

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 6, 2020. A move by President Donald Trump to restrict exports of masks and other protective equipment needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic is drawing a backlash from around the world even as a senior aide to the president said Monday the U.S. was “locked and loaded” at the border to prevent “profiteering” from exports by American companies. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg
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One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is that everyone is navigating the unknown. The world has changed since the last global crisis. Coronavirus has forced governments around the world to improvise and rely on trial-and-error tactics to contain its spread.

In doing so, governments would have been well advised to not trust exclusively crisis communication specialists and their strategies – even though they have effectively managed previous crises.

This context, however, is unique and unprecedented. Welcome to crisis management and communication in the age of global interdependence, hyper-connectivity, real-time news, populism, fake news and social media.

No one was ready for this. In all fairness, no one could have been.

New tactics have already been adopted. Scientists and medical experts are being used by governments like never before. Not only to inform policies, but also as spokespersons to communicate with the general population. This is a very good thing. Except when those scientists become shields to protect political leaders against the dissatisfaction of the public.

Elected officials should learn from scientists the great benefits of saying openly "I don't know" and "I made a mistake" when it is the case and then focus on correcting this.

In this new kind of crisis-environment, real leaders do not hide. They are not afraid to be publicly accountable for their decisions, and mistakes. "If someone wants to blame someone, blame me", said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently. "There is no one else responsible for this decision”, he added, setting a benchmark for how elected officials should communicate to earn the trust of the people.

Accountable and responsible leadership is the new power. But not all leaders have understood this yet.

Mr Cuomo is still an outlier in his direct communication style when it comes to crisis management. Members of government bodies still deliver long-winded and unfocused speeches to address their constituencies.

FILE - In this March 24, 2020, file photo New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The general public is often served clumsy attempts at convincing them that their country’s administration has made no mistakes in managing the pandemic. Not to mention the endless list of people being thanked, instead of addressing urgent matters.

Where strong leadership is needed, fear transpires. Communication and engagement need to be informed by rigorous scientific data collected at many levels. From online discussions to the human brain, not just by a bunch of surveys interpreted by experts from another era.

Over the past weeks, my company has been running pilot brain-data collection in France, the UK and the US. A sample of people stuck in their homes agreed for their brainwaves to be monitored anonymised by one of our portable brain scanners, while they watched ministers and heads of states giving TV updates on the Covid-19 situation.

Our machine learning algorithms provided real-time brain measures of the viewers’ changes in attention and stress levels. We also assessed how frustrated they felt. Our preliminary findings highlight straightforward rules that are easy to apply but rarely observed.

Be concise and straight to the point. People’s attention levels in the brain decrease very quickly during lengthy speeches or government updates. Frustration levels increase during long ‘thank you’ segments.

Be precise and consistent. Our data suggests that saying something like “we have ordered a lot of” instead of providing a precise figure, as well as mixed messages, increases both the levels of frustration and stress.

Leaders need to stop underestimating the intelligence of people. In some countries, daily TV updates provide domestic numbers of contaminated and dead people, but only after health authorities first share corresponding statistics from other countries. Being shown a worse situation in other countries does not make people feel better. It is the other way around. Being informed that it is bad everywhere increases stress.

In my previous column, I advocated for neurotech to be used by governments to fight this pandemic and to improve their communications. Inspired by the many companies who repurposed their tech and factories to contribute to the collective effort to fight the virus, we decided to walk the talk.

Because our pilot neuroscience study provided interesting preliminary results, we are providing this remote brain data collection to help public health authorities. We hope to engage the tens of thousands of people in more than 120 countries who already own a portable brain scanner. Thanks to a cloud-based online brain data collection platform deployed in a record time, we will measure the gap between the level of stress people report in surveys and what their brains really experience.

Olivier Oullier

We will also test the brain responses to material and recommendations shared by public health authorities of various countries and cities. The results of this non-commercial study aim to help governments and health agencies improve their Covid-19 communications. Crisis management and communication are being reinvented every day by all of us and our brains are at the core it.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ