Governor Cuomo is Showing us the Blueprint for How to Effectively Communicate During a Crisis

Governor Cuomo is Showing us the Blueprint for How to Effectively Communicate During a Crisis

By: Dan Sweet

The world is facing the most devastating healthcare crisis in over a hundred years. Most everyone in the U.S. and around the world is worried about their family's health and financial future. We are hungry for sound information and a sense there is a strategy to see us through the next few harrowing months.

Being able to communicate effectively is never more important than at times like these. Whether you are a government official speaking to your constituents or a brand speaking to your customers, being able to provide clear, concise information and a reassuring point of view is critical to navigating through any crisis.

If you want to witness a real-time case study of how to do this, you may want to watch one of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's daily press conferences. This is not an endorsement of Governor Cuomo's policies nor his ability to lead a state. However, over the last couple of weeks, Governor Cuomo has received rave reviews from all corners for his ability to communicate effectively with his audiences by helping us better understand what we face with COVID-19 and how we can address the issue.

How does he do it? After watching several of Cuomo's press conferences, you begin to see a communications pattern develop. For example, Cuomo’s March 24 press conference included five key elements that provided a strong blueprint for any communicator that finds themselves in a crisis.

  • Lead with the Facts: At a time of crisis, people are not looking for sugarcoated reassurances that everything is fine. They need to know the facts. Cuomo began the press conference by providing facts about New York State’s hospital capacity. New York State has 53,000 ICU beds, and health experts are predicting the state will need 140,000 over the next 14-21 days. Also, New York is short roughly 30,000 ventilators to treat acute cases of COVID-19. Cuomo laid out the problem in stark terms, gave details, and framed the situation in a way that is easily understood.
  • Show Leadership: Cuomo then explained in clear, concise language what New York State is currently doing to address the problem. This included: Closing businesses, reducing street density, increasing testing, and trying new drug therapies to slow down the virus. Being able to demonstrate leadership in clear terms, that direct actions are being taken, allows the audience to know something is being done even if they can’t see it.
  • Tell a Story to Frame the Need: Of particular concern for Cuomo is the lack of ventilators that will be in desperate need in New York soon and his astonishment of the federal government refusing to implement the Defense Production Act. This Act allows the government to direct and provide resources to, private industry to produce needed items during a crisis. Instead of just demanding action from the federal government, Cuomo told a story about the critical role our nation's factories played in World War II. How the federal government directed companies such as Ford Motor to build materials for the war effort. How it provided resources and guaranteed purchase orders that not only helped us win the war but helped us economically as well. Providing this context makes a stronger case by giving the audience a reference point of past success.
  • Make it Personal: During a crisis, the audience needs to believe you are in the trenches with them, not just an observer on the sidelines. The problem with crises is they tend to reduce people to numbers. An effective communicator cuts through the numbers and allows the audience to connect on a personal level. One great example of this came when Cuomo explained that he named New York’s shelter in place law “Matilda’s Law” because he was thinking of his own mother’s health when he signed it. He went on to say how the one or two percent who may die from this virus due to lack of ventilators are people's mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, and brothers. He told us he is thinking of "the 40-year-old breast cancer survivor with four kids and a compromised immune system” when he is making his decisions on how to address this crisis.
  • Be Reassuring: Finally, any good leader – be it CEO, governor, or team captain – will be able to communicate reassuring messages during a time of crisis. Cuomo does not undersell the severity of the situation but always makes sure to leave the audience with the understanding that while our lives will likely be disrupted for a while, we will get through this and come out strong on the other side.

At RP3, we understand that how you present your case is just as important as the messages you are trying to get across. We counsel our clients that you need to move quickly to get the facts out during a crisis but, to truly be effective, you also demonstrate compassion, empathy and reassurance. This goes a long way in building (or rebuilding) trust with your audience. 

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Dan Sweet

Dan Sweet

Director of Public Relations

Dan has spent 15 years providing strategic communications counsel and executing successful media relations campaigns for a variety of major corporate brands and advocacy clients including Microsoft, American Airlines and Genentech. He specializes in earned media, crisis communications and healthcare. He began his career in the fast-paced, “win-the-day” atmosphere of political campaigns, a philosophy he brings to each of his clients to this day.