When I was little, I was a voracious reader. I had the entire collection of “Value Tales.” I must have read The Value of Believing in Yourself: The Story of Louis Pasteur a hundred times before my mom decided to order the rest of the set. The Value of Determination: The Story of Helen Keller was one of my favorites, along with The Value of Creativity: The Story of Thomas Edison. I do not recall there ever being a Value of Communication tale in my collection.
However, as we weather the COVID-19 pandemic, each with our own circumstances and challenges, the value of communication has become exceedingly evident in our lives. We are all desperate for information in this uncertain time – clear and concise communication helps us understand exactly what we can be certain of versus what has yet to be decided. Communication helps us make sense of our world and the changes we are navigating.
As communication professionals, we have dedicated our careers to understanding the nuances in perception that come from language and word choices, body language or lack thereof, and punctuation options.
In this time where people are seeking truth, and need to hear information directly from trusted authorities, the role of public information officials is more valuable than ever. Every city, county, state, federal and special district PIO and other communications professional are quickly and carefully writing key messages, speaking points to assist in interviews, FAQ documents for website – and the intentional selection of every word, phrase, headline and hashtag is more important than ever.
Consider the evolution we have seen in how we speak about COVID-19. The term social distancing took hold early on, but the repercussions of that language are now being examined from multiple perspectives. Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman discusses how social connections reduce abuse in the article “Avoiding the Gulf: How “social distancing” has the power to separate families more than six feet.” Mental health professionals are looking at how the "social distancing" is inadvertently leading to social isolation instead of safe physical space at a time when staying connected is more important than ever. The World Health Organization is officially encouraging the term “physical distancing” instead. Contemplate the feeling that comes with a headline like: Physically apart, together at heart.
As long-time public sector communications professionals ourselves, our team took some time to draft some supportive tips for all the PIOs in the position of communicating on what could be the most significant topic of information in our lifetime. These are guidelines we are using ourselves as we support our clients, including cities, ports, water and sanitary utilities and more in their critical communications efforts on COVID-19.
Aim for a single source of truth – We like to ask ourselves, is this my story to tell? Whether it is on a website or social media, a press release or in an interview - we speak to the issues on which we are the authority. If there is a clear authority on a matter that has already spoken on a subject, we share their information. The CDC has put together a great poster on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We encourage clients to share the CDC poster to help ensure the public receives consistent information. On the flip-side, when you are the authority – communicate directly, make the information easy to find and shareable.
Plain language is critical – In a time when the world is seeking clarity, the need for plain language is even more important. We recently reduced a 14-page document to a one-page summary for a client. By selecting the information our audience cares most about and writing about it in a simple, conversational way, we help make information understandable for the public.
Sometimes less is more – Another important question to ask ourselves, is whether we need to be part of this conversation. Our team lamented the number of organizations we received COVID-19 messages from – every organization with my email address sent me a message about what they were doing in response to the pandemic. At some point, it seemed like a cross between deja-vu and Groundhog Day. When we communicate just to be part of the conversation, or because everyone else is doing it, we risk becoming part of the fray and adding to the information overload. There is value in patience – communicate when you have something to add to the conversation.
Visual communication should enhance understanding – We are fans of using infographics, icons and photography to communicate ideas. However, imagery that is added simply to have a picture does not necessarily speak a thousand words. We recommend choosing imagery that is as clear and easy to understand as the words you select to accompany them. Other forms of visual communication are also important such as using titles and subtitles that help articulate main ideas or using bold type and bullets to break up large amounts of text. Even color and type choices help communicate clearly when chosen intentionally.
I managed to order the now out of print Value Tales online this weekend – I thought it was high-time I shared this childhood experience with my grandchildren, who love to read with me. Perhaps someday, the Value of Communication will be added to a new version of this beloved collection. It could well be written about this very time we are in right now, and the valuable work PIOs around the world are doing to keep us all safe, healthy and informed.
We see you. We value you.
Vice President, Client Affairs & Creative Strategy