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Why is Dr. Bonnie Henry So Effective Communicating in this Crisis? Applying Dr. Peter Sandman’s Analysis to BC

October 22nd 2020

By Tamara Little, Owner and Chief Client Advisor at Coast Communications 

We all know bad crisis communications instantly. It hits us viscerally when we observe leaders on the evening news or on social media, tone deaf and out of sync.

In contrast, Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stood out as one of the most effective communicators in the midst of the largest crisis of our generation, the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what is it specifically that Dr. Henry is doing that is working so well from a professional crisis communications perspective? Why is she and resonating and helping us “flatten the curve”? Here are seven things Dr. Henry is doing right:

Focuses on changing our behaviour, not technical briefings on the science. 

Dr. Henry is an expert in infectious diseases and their spread and is more than capable to give us the scientific details of COVID-19, but she exercises restraint. Instead she keeps to the high-level facts about impacts on us and actions we need to take, so that the information is readily available to all British Columbians.

Validates our fear, while also expressing her own. 

Dr. Henry speaks with empathy and acknowledges that its ok to be sad and scared. We all recognize that same catch in our voice when we talk about our “elders” as Dr. Henry kindly calls the seniors in long-term care.  When she speaks to the role of elders in First Nations communities as culture and history keepers, we understand that when they are impacted, we all lose.

Tells us the truth candidly, but gently.
As Dr. Peter Sandman, the guru of crisis communications explains it, scary content must be presented in a calm way. We are all riveted by Dr. Henry’s updates, parsing every word for something that may help us and our loved ones survive and for a sign of our future. And listen hard we must because there is no sensationalizing, hyperbole or poorly matched metaphors in Dr. Henry’s presentations.

Reassures us when the news is improving while advising caution. 
“The numbers look good, but we are not out of the woods yet,” has been the encouraging refrain by Dr. Henry over the last week

Tasks us with a duty. 

Be Calm. Be Kind. Be Safe. Dr. Henry is clear with her call to action, using plain language to lay out the rules. Exercise, but beyond that stay home as much as possible (and absolutely stay home if you’re ill). Go outside but stick to your household unit. Order in food, but not for dinner parties, just your family.

Treats us like adults and rely on us to make good choices. 
“I am not dictating what people must or must do like some jurisdictions,” explains Dr. Henry. Sometimes people have good reason for taking the ferry and she trusts us to make the right choice.

Tell us the plan. 
In the last week Dr. Henry has been carefully telegraphing what types of things we will see as government comes up with plans for our economic and social renewal. She has also been clear on the changing, albeit often nuanced, fluid nature of the testing strategy. Questions by media are answered patiently and fully, with no attempt to dodge and weave.

We often shorten the basic pathway for success for crisis communications as Concern. Action. Commitment. Dr. Henry exemplifies this daily and has set a new standard for us all as we communicate in crises in the future. 

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