Regardless of which side of the political aisle you might sit on, it’s difficult to deny that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the top advisor on the White House’s coronavirus task force, is a proficient spokesperson during a crisis. A July Morning Consult/Politico poll showed 62% of registered voters rated Dr. Fauci’s handling of the coronavirus as “excellent” or “good.”
To begin with, he has the right experience for the job. Fauci has been an expert on infectious diseases—from HIV/AIDS and SARS to Ebola and now Covid-19—for more than 50 years. This is step No. 1 when selecting a spokesperson to be front and center when things go wrong: Make sure their skills and credentials match the situation. Here are six more traits Fauci brings to the podium that every crisis spokesperson should learn:
Perhaps the biggest mistake a spokesperson can make is to show little or no empathy for those impacted by a crisis. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci has shown great concern for human welfare. During a heartfelt virtual commencement address for Holy Cross, his alma mater, he told the graduating class, “Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another.”
Airbnb CEO and co-founder of Brian Chesky took this approach to heart when he sent this anguished letter to employees informing them of a 25% staffing reduction caused by the impacts of Covid-19 on the travel industry.
Focus on the facts
One of the most important aspects of being a good crisis spokesperson is to leave opinion and conjecture out of the discussion and only focus on the facts. For example, when some were suggesting that hydroxychloroquine, a drug used for malaria, be used to prevent Covid-19, Fauci firmly disagreed based on science. “It was not done in a controlled clinical trial,” he said. “So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.”
Bring calm to the crisis
Think of a crisis as being at the center of a storm. When surrounded by chaos, people have a tendency to panic. The person charged with communicating about a crisis needs to maintain a sense of calm, particularly if they’re on the receiving end of pointed questions. Consider this exchange at a Covid-19 hearing between U.S. Representative Jim Jordan and Fauci. Jordan presses numerous times, but the doctor holds his ground while never getting flustered.
Simplify and be concise
Science isn’t easy for all people to digest. Being a “novel” virus that has yielded “unprecedented” results further muddles matters. Fauci has the unenviable task of making that which is complicated—and, in many cases, unknown—understandable. Regardless of your industry, you’ll probably need to do the same. “Know what message you need to deliver … and say it as succinctly as you possibly can,” Fauci advises.
Build trust through transparency
Trust is something you must earn. And one of the best ways to accomplish that is through transparency in your communications. While some might think downplaying a situation can avoid panic, honesty—despite the gravity of the situation—creates calm, which produces trust. Those impacted by the crisis don’t want to be placated; they want to understand the full extent of what they’re facing and what they should do to get past it.
Whether you have one or multiple spokespeople addressing a crisis, you need to make sure that a consistent message is being communicated. Mixed messages cause confusion, as we saw when President Trump and Dr. Fauci had opposing views on the importance of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19. If you, a colleague or the media make a mistake (we’re human; it happens), correct it as soon as possible and with humility, as Fauci did with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
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