Communicating the Unprecedented: Pennsylvania Closes Down

Workers and residents of the state of Pennsylvania found out last week where the line between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses is… at least in their state. Governor Tom Wolf declared that all “non-essential” businesses would be shuttered in an aggressive effort to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

In his statement announcing the decision, Wolf was somber and direct, as befitting an announcement of this unprecedented magnitude. Wolf said: “This isn’t a decision that I take lightly. It’s one that I’m making because medical experts believe it is the only way we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients.” 

The first question he was asked, of course, was, “What are non-essential and essential businesses?” Wolf had an answer ready, telling the press that, for this purpose, “essential” included services such as trash collection, medical facilities, and grocery stores.” Wolf added that this “mandate” would remain in place for at least two weeks as the state looked to find ways to stem the spread of the virus. 

In making this decision, Wolf joined the governors of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey in announcing sweeping restrictions after previous, less-restrictive sanctions. Wolf put the bottom-line message bluntly: “We need to eliminate as many physical contacts as we can to prevent further spread.” 

From a messaging perspective, Wolf knew going in that his words would not be good news for anyone, even those who supported the decision. But, in choosing to be clear and direct, he allowed the message to land cleanly, so people could take it all in, chew on it, and consider the implications. 

These days, words such as “unprecedented” are being thrown around quite a bit, but, in this case, they fit. No one really knows exactly how to deal with this pandemic, nor what the best possible way might be to talk about it. Officials and leaders and communicators are falling back on what they know of communication psychology mixed with the necessity to get as clear a message as possible out as fast as possible. 

There’s no doubt that this is a challenge. Communicating bad news as part of an effort to stave off worse news is a tough wire to walk, but it’s one that leaders and communicators in every organization – and every household – are having to walk. At every level, clarity with a healthy dose of empathy, is a good place to begin. From there, presentation matters as much as content. In times of forced isolation, a narrative that draws people together, delivered in a way that causes people to be appreciative and reflective, is a solid choice.