Master the Message: How Trump Can Win the Coronavirus Information War

Master the Message: How Trump Can Win the Coronavirus Information War

Communications expert: "The President has to make sure he connects with people on the losses before he encourages us on what we can overcome. He can’t skip the part where this is really hard, and he’ll do much better in the public eye if we feel he’s along for this scary, painful journey." 

 

What we know: coronavirus is highly contagious, and thousands have died from it.

What we don’t know: how long should we practice social distancing to actually make a difference? Is flattening the curve important if most of us are expected to contract it? Should we avoid groups of people until more medical devices are made available or until they develop a vaccine?

 

Though the U.S. response has been well-received, the unknowns are vast and scary. Good communication is now our greatest weapon to fight the fear at home until tangible solutions are developed.

So, here’s what President Trump and his administration can do to stop the spread of misinformation and win this war we seem to be waging.

State the Objective

We’re all learning about coronavirus together, so it’s understandable that “what should we do?” is a moving target. But fighting a war when we don’t know what winning looks like is impossible.

First, Americans need to understand the purpose of social distancing and the shuttering of our economy—especially since a lot of people’s livelihoods are on the line. We need to have a clear directive on whether these steps protect the elderly, or keep the hospitals clear to treat the most vulnerable, or buy us time to develop a vaccine, or all of the above.

When the majority of Americans realize they could get coronavirus and recover and be fine, a lot of questions arise as to why we’re sheltering in place. It’s not just the Millennials partying in Florida who question whether staying inside is just delaying the inevitable.

We need clear information on what the end game is. Yes, that goal may change as we learn more. But it’s hard to get people to make certain sacrifices if they don’t know what winning the war looks like.

Under Promise and Over Deliver

We’ve heard a lot of conflicting timelines. Fourteen days to 30 days to 18 months. However, it’s better for President Trump and his Administration to offer worst-case scenarios and then dial back the response as we tackle the virus head-on.

For example, if the medical experts know that it’s best to keep everyone at home until the end of April, forecast it. If that doesn’t end up being true, and we can return to normal life sooner, we’ll be grateful; if it does end up being true, then we’ll be prepared to entertain ourselves from the comfort of our homes through April 30th.

Right now, they’re forecasting through March 31st, but imagine the outcry if they have to recommend we all stay home for 30 days beyond March 31st. Americans are tough, but we’ll lose our patience if the finish line keeps moving, especially if we don’t know the goal.

Use the Right Tone

Trump is facing a unique optical challenge as he can’t walk into communities or hospitals to offer comfort like more presidents do after a disaster. But what he can do is keep talking.

The daily press conferences are good. People crave information in high-stress times, so they’re right to push it out there via the best messengers --  Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx.

President Trump should be praised for letting these medical professionals talk to the American people, especially when they’ve been honest about mistakes that have been made along the way. But the President has to be careful with the encouragement he offers as he’s behind a mic or Twitter feed. “Rah, rah. We are going to win. We are going to be stronger” messages only work if they’re first grounded in the uncertainty we’re all feeling.

Many people are losing their business and/or their jobs, and no government check is going to make up for the economic loss. Many people are cancelling their weddings and their once-in-a-lifetime trips and the list goes on.

The President has to make sure he connects with people on the losses before he encourages us on what we can overcome. He can’t skip the part where this is really hard, and he’ll do much better in the public eye if we feel he’s along for this scary, painful journey.

Beverly Hallberg is the founder and president of District Media Group.

Image Credit: U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.