The US Centers for Disease Control publishes a Field Epidemiology Manual with lots of great material on how to handle epidemics.
There’s a great chapter on communications during an epidemic here. (Infosec incident response planners would be wise to read this material; lots of it applies to communicating about data breaches. Back to the topic at hand.)
Communication starts with trust and credibility. The manual lays down four principles to consider:
- Empathy and caring,
- Honesty and openness,
- Dedication and commitment, and
- Competence and expertise
It’s remarkable to me how close these are to Aristotle’s three basic characteristics of a good communicator: He called them pathos, ethos, and logos. Pathos is the speaker’s ability to empathize with the audience. Ethos is the way the speaker convinces the audience of a personal commitment. Logos is the information the speaker hopes to convey.
Dr. Fauci, for just one example among many, embodies these characteristics. Pathos: He’s a physician; he has seen many sick patients and their families during his career, and he knows what it’s like to lie in their hospital beds. Ethos: He’s dedicated his professional life to public health, and he has no fear of speaking unpleasant truth. Logos: He knows what he’s talking about, he knows how to explain it, and he knows the limits of his knowledge.
In an situation like the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, the CDC manual suggests choosing people with strong pathos, ethos, and logos to be the public face of public health.
It’s interesting that the US states of California, Washington, and New Mexico did that. The state of New York did not: their politicians did not vacate the pulpit in favor of credible public health doctors. Without pathos, ethos, and logos, people get sick and die.
In the New Yorker, writer Charles Duhigg explored the situation.