Employee communication lessons from Dr. Fauci

As an admitted news junkie, I have been glued to televised updates on COVID-19. Many of these sessions have left me confused and frustrated. Thankfully, amid the often-conflicting messages, one person has become what the Associated Press calls “the trusted voice in separating fact and fiction.” That’s the straight-talking Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci has earned that trust over three decades, responding to epidemics from AIDS to Zika. Now as the country’s top leader on infectious diseases—and a gifted communicator—he provides comfort without disguising the reality of the situation.  

Your organization’s leaders can—and should—play that same role for employees during this time of uncertainty. With many people working remotely, employees seek contact and reassurance from their leaders, writes my firm’s CEO Alison Davis.

Help your leaders give employees much-needed support and encouragement by  mastering these five communication lessons:

1. “Know thy audience”

Frank Pietrucha, author of Supercommunicator, interviewed Fauci in 2015 and asked, “What makes a good communicator?”

“Know thy audience,” Fauci replied.

In fact, according to Pietrucha: “Fauci won’t accept a speaking engagement unless he’s confident he has enough information on the audience. He always asks questions about the audience’s scientific/medical background, professional responsibilities, personal experience with issue, education level and other factors—before he starts to prepare any remarks.”

How to advise your leaders
First, dive into demographics to understand your audience by asking the questions Fauci does. Then segment, or divide, your audience into groups so leaders can meet the individual needs of each group. For example, encourage leaders to target communication for:

  • Managers. Help leaders provide managers with updates and talking points they can use with their teams, including tips on working from home.
  • Front-line employees (who are continuing to come to a company facility as usual). Support leaders to connect with these workers to express appreciation and answer questions.

This technique will help leaders move from communication that is generic (and ignored by most employees) to information that’s relevant.

2. Keep it simple

The Hill says Fauci “explains medical issues in an understandable way, but without sacrificing scientific precision.”

How to advise your leaders
Remind leaders that, now more than ever, it’s critical to communicate using clear, simple language. Encourage leaders to:

  • Avoid jargon. For example, if your organization will furlough employees, define the term. Be clear that this is a temporary leave from work.
  • Be friendly and conversational. Employees are looking for comfort, so coach leaders not to talk from on high. Instead, help leaders to be sincere, specific and, above all, human.

3. Admit the truth

In an article for Health and Communications, Rick Lesaar notes that when watching Fauci’s testimony before Congress: “You’ll notice that he’s not afraid to say that he doesn’t know. Without lots of qualifiers, he will simply say, ‘We don’t know’ though he’s usually quick to add ‘But we believe…’”

How to advise your leaders
To help others be comfortable with ambiguity and build trust, leaders need to be candid. Tell them not to fear the truth.

  • Don’t have all the answers? Leaders should say so.
  • Not sure when all the information will be available? Advise leaders to be honest or risk losing credibility.

4. Consistency is king

Fauci is consistent. His messaging is the same regardless of whether he’s giving a briefing from the White House or appearing on Sunday morning news shows. Repetition also helps people learn new concepts. (That’s how “flatten the curve” has become part of the lexicon.)

How to advise your leaders
Develop a message map to be sure leaders are on the same page and provide employees with reliable information that sticks. Here’s how it works:

  • Start with a top level elevator speech (one to three sentences). Provide an overview of how your organization is responding to the pandemic.
  • Support your elevator speech with three key messages. Get into the details of the situation.
  • Then leverage your messaging consistently. Align your communication across all channels, such as web-based leader forums, newsletters, the intranet and Yammer.

5. Stay connected

Americans want to hear from Fauci. So much so if he misses a couple of White House briefings, the Twittersphere blows up. When Fauci is present, cable news hosts breathe a sigh of relief.

How to advise your leaders
Employees want to see their leaders. Encourage leaders to connect on a personal level and even have some fun.

A few ideas to consider:

  • Leaders can schedule virtual happy hours with their teams using your organization’s meeting platform of choice.
  • Ask leaders to submit photos or video selfies as they work from home. Share them on your intranet.
  • Start a thread on internal social media describing what your homebound “co-workers” are doing. Leaders can share photos, too.

Your leaders are already experts in their field. Make use of these lessons from a master communicator to help your leaders give employees the reassurance they crave during these uncertain times.

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