As of this writing, I live in the County with the highest “cases per capita” of the coronavirus in the State of Indiana.  Is it a source of concern?  Of course.  A source of bewilderment?  Perhaps.  As a consultant, it provides a unique opportunity to assess crisis management communications, the corresponding values and opinions of residents who are impacted, and the resulting impact beyond our community to other areas and demographics.

Calculations made from the latest reports for the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) show Decatur County with 90 cases and a population of 26,794 (.0034 cases per capita) outpacing every County in the State when it comes to cases per capita.  As of this writing, one could take out Franklin County (.0024) Marion County (.0021) and Ripley County (.0025) and Decatur County would be alarmingly higher than every other County in the State.  The rationale for that has been discussed, debated, and even analyzed by the State Department of Health, but the data is not the focus of this article.  However, the way the information is perceived, communicated, and valued is, and provides a lesson in crisis management.

Given the announcements of the County’s lofty ranking, one would think that in general, residents would have been more careful and more diligent about adopting Health Department and CDC guidelines. In actuality, a large percentage of residents were.  However, social media posts frequently mentioned dismay at stories of residents gathering with friends, in or out-of-town, having children play with those not part of their households, and making non-essential trips here or there.  Speculation surrounded it involving a disrespect for authority.  Maybe it’s the feeling of being invincible? Thinking “we’re okay.” Some asked, do they not care about friends, family, neighbors or community? 

In my own lengthy Facebook post, I acknowledged that, “while there are a few reasons that force people out, others should force themselves to stay in.”  There were so many trying to understand the non-compliance, and my Facebook post appealing for a logical perspective lit up my page.  The post received over 300 reactions and 365 shares, most in its first few hours.  In the end, it took the County Commissioners increasing to a travel “warning” status to help improve compliance.

Potential Communication Impact

The immediate and intense reaction to my post led to some observational conclusions.  The lack of compliance could have resulted from splintered communication, a major problem I’ve identified in several rural communities.  As I’ve written, for crisis management to be successful, stellar and well-planned communication is imperative.  However, most rural areas like Decatur County have a fractured infrastructure that leaves residents searching for information in multiple places, without a unified message.

This crisis provides a perfect example. The messages were not always coordinated nor were the methods.  Governmental units were feeling their way through the process, some attempted to utilize social media (but lacked strong followings) and traditional media (less utilized by younger generations) in disseminating information. One facility was touting its preparations when people wanted answers about the potential outcomes.  Another understaffed agency tried to rally the call to action.   Emergency managers took another angle.  Nonprofits were doing their own thing and focusing on several different messages while most had an underlying concern for sustainability. In the public space, the chorus of “I didn’t know about this” or “where did you hear that” continued to grow louder.  As a result, even more Facebook pages evolved, filling a perceived void, but watering down the effectiveness of all. In the end, as in many rural communities, there was no “one place” for residents to gather their information.  The result is a lack of unified messages and no clear vision for what success looks like in managing this crisis. 

Ironically, technology should make consistent messaging and coordinated information easier now more than ever. Yet, despite public outcries for a central information source, and half-hearted efforts over the years, a trusted repository ceases to exist locally.  Unfortunately, despite the façade of working together it’s stopped short of what’s needed, inhibited by turf issues, which are not unusual in smaller communities. A unified communication plan could eliminate these issues.  For the greater good in all rural communities, they need to be resolved. 

A crisis communication plan for any organization requires identifying a central leader who gets it and is supported at the top. A consistent voice carried by an accomplished and trusted orator is key to getting buy-in and developing a following.  That might not always be the person at the top of the organization or entity. As a result, it takes a strong leader to recognize someone else has the skill set to accomplish the desired unity and strike the right chord.  It may even require a “panel” of people representing the different players to deliver the desired messages with consistency.

In the end, a larger communication problem may have fueled the frustration expressed in social media. It would be helpful to know just how many residents weren’t following the recommendations because “no one told me” verses those who didn’t appreciate the value of undertaking the recommended safety measures.  Either way, we can hope that coordinated efforts are yet another positive to evolve from the tragedies of this situation.

David Fry is President/CEO of Effective Advancement Strategies in Greensburg and consults with businesses and nonprofits throughout Indiana. Comments may be directed to strategies@etczone.com

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