Tell Your Own COVID-19 Story, and Tell It Now

Others need to hear your own COVID-19 story.

Posted Apr 10, 2020

NancyShoots with permission
Mona Lisa Masked
Source: NancyShoots with permission

This week I interviewed the international crisis manager and Emmy-winning journalist, Scott Sobel, who specializes in crisis management and media psychology. Sobel’s focus is advising clients on how to persuade their audiences in crisis situations, to effectively deliver important information, and effect positive behavioral changes.

Sobel explained that he is closely studying how public leaders use various media communications techniques to provide positive and uplifting examples for their audiences.

Leaders aim to inform and influence their constituents in ways that lead to sound decision-making. The present COVID-19 virus pandemic is burdening decision-making with potentially life or death consequences. In responding to COVID-19, Sobel explained that many of the most effective communicators connect and persuade their audiences by using their own personal, anecdotal experiences with the virus to persuade their target audiences. 

 Scott Sobel with permission
Scott Sobel
Source: Scott Sobel with permission

Two compelling examples that he noted are those of Dr. Laura Feijoo, superintendent of schools in New Rochelle, NY, and the brother of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, CNN journalist Chris Cuomo. Both Chris Cuomo and Feijoo have tested positive for COVID-19. They are among the increasing number of new, high-profile cases in which leaders are sharing their own stories to help calm fears and educate the public.

“The need and ability to deliver appropriate, helpful, and influential media responses is now more important than ever,” explained Sobel. Business and education administrators are now painfully aware that they must be prepared to respond to incidents of major proportions while helping to calm increasingly tumultuous situations. Telling personal stories is one method that resonates with listeners and helps with public understanding.

Do it now, and do it live and on location when you can.

The heat of a mass media incident feels more relevant to the audience when it comes live, from the location of the incident (Postman, 1992). When handling and explaining an incident including a story, the focus of the report expands the audiences’ perception of its relevance to them. This article highlights several compelling stories as examples to illustrate how to effectively disseminate helpful information and give relevant stories “legs.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval ratings have soared, according to a Siena College poll, since he started a televised daily news briefing that is accessible across all news platforms (Lopez, 2020). The governor frequently references his brother's experience as a coronavirus victim.

NY Times
Andrew & Chris Cuomo
Source: NY Times

Such personalization has imbued the governor and his leadership with additional empathy and credibility. People are tribal and if they feel trust, they will default to trust and be influenced by this type of leadership example. Individuals instinctively look to identify qualities of authenticity and honesty to decide who to follow or emulate.

Following a symbolic leader is entwined with the instinctual “fight or flight” response that is automatically triggered when one is threatened. People are motivated to enthusiastically follow an influential role model who is leading a charge and appears to be taking a personal risk with his/her own life, career, or situation.  When a leader is clearly empathetic to a situation, shares pertinent information, and provides compelling examples to identify with the audience through sharing relevant personal experiences, followers are predisposed to trust him or her, Sobel says.

In another example, Sobel further described School Superintendent Laura Feijoo as a compelling example of a leader who effectively demonstrated her leadership role after publicly announcing that she is also a virus victim.

L.Feijoo with permission
Dr. Laura Feijoo
Source: L.Feijoo with permission

The New York City suburb of New Rochelle was one of the first communities in the nation to report coronavirus cases and take quick, aggressive action to protect the community. Dr. Feijoo made the appropriate decision to close schools in coordination with New York Governor Cuomo's decisions and doubled-down on distance learning programs for students. Sobel, advocating the idea that stories are important, asked Superintendent Feijoo to share her own story.

Why did you feel it important to let the public know through news media and other communication pipelines that you had the virus?

“As the superintendent of schools, I believe leadership is a full-time commitment. Leadership is not time-bound; it is defined by actions taken in the most difficult circumstances.  Being an effective leader requires authenticity, transparency and a transformative mindset.  Good leaders must earn the trust of the community they seek to lead.  Public trust can only be inspired by the willingness of leaders to share relevant aspects of their personal life to help others. Many in New Rochelle have been impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19).  I believe it is imperative for me to authentically relate to my community by sharing my personal experience, which is why I am sharing my story.” (Eberhart, 2020)

Do you believe sharing your personal experiences helps you lead, educate, and help others?

“People often learn from the circumstances of others.  This global pandemic has tragically affected tens of thousands of households.  Often there are more questions than answers.  I believe that it is important for people to understand that we are all at risk and that the coronavirus can impact anyone. Collectively, as a local, state-wide, national, worldwide community, we must get through this together. In doing so, we will remember the importance of community and will retain and remember valuable lessons that will guide our thinking for generations to come,” said Feijoo.

Governor Cuomo has also received high marks for sharing his family’s experience with the virus. Is he doing the right thing?

“Governor Cuomo sharing his family's personal story is courageous. It is comforting to his audience to know that they are not alone.  Many in the state of New York and around the country now identify with Governor Cuomo precisely because of his personal story. It mirrors their own stories in many ways. The governor's family's willingness to invite the public into a difficult and private time speaks to their commitment to serve the public at large,” Sobel emphasized (Cuomo, 2020).

I asked Sobel to offer his media response tips from the examples he described.

Scott Sobel’s seven media response tips:

  1. Always breathe deeply, slowly in, slowly out, sit or stand straight. It helps maintain calm when telling a story and helps project your speech.
  2. Do not use “No comment.” There is always something positive to say while no comment appears that you are covering up.
  3. Recognize that you cannot take back your words once you speak them. First impressions are very powerful.
  4. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, flag and emphasize positive messages, but steer away from negative messages.
  5. Always be polite and helpful, even when you don’t feel like it. Helping a reporter do their job will benefit your relationship and usually the story outcome.
  6. Be aware that body language is powerful and makes a difference.
  7. Remember that telling your story, or the story of others, is powerful because audiences give you added credibility for being in the media and not being afraid to share your authentic experience.

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and New York and California governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsome are each sharing many stories as compelling examples during their briefings. They use the stories to reinforce the points they want to get across. In another vivid example, Dr. Mark Segal, an internist at New York University Langone Medical Center, shared a particularly effective COVID-19 story about his 98-year-old father, who was stricken by the coronavirus and resigned to dying. Dr. Segal says his father was saved by treatment with hydroxychloroquine, the controversial drug now among many drugs being studied. Dr. Segal’s delivery was very short, very personal, very clear, and very moving. It resonated with millions of viewers (Segal, 2020).

“At this writing, the coronavirus continues to aggressively spread and disrupt the personal and economic lives of millions across the United States. Crisis management is necessary and comes with the mantle of leadership,” Sobel explained to me. “Keeping spirits up, aggressively following steps to curb the pandemic, and handling each situation, one crisis at a time requires great communication,” he emphasized. “The best crisis management advice I can give is that when the message is emphasized by telling positive personal stories, it connects and is most effective in reaching the larger population. If you can, help share the message, give others needed support and information and share your personal involvement. “Tell the story, tell your own story, and tell it now!” With respect to COVID-19, our future may depend on it.

Special thanks to Toni Luskin, Ph.D., for editorial and technical support.

Luskin Learning Psychology Series No. 50 -

email: Bernie@LuskinInternational.com

References

Siena Research Institute Poll: 87% of New Yorkers’ Approve of Cuomo’s Handling of the Coronavirus

https://scri.siena.edu/2020/03/30/87-of-nyers-approve-of-cuomos-handling-of-the-coronavirus/

 ADDIN EN.REFLIST Cuomo, A. (Speaker) & CNN News (Director). (2020). Daily Coronavirus Briefing [Cable Television]. In CNN (Producer), Governor's Daily Coronavirus Press Briefing. USA: CNN.

Eberhart, C.J., McKinney, M.P. (2020). New Rochelle schools superintendent tests positive for coronavirus. Rockland/Westchester Journal News. Retrieved from Rockland/Westchester Journal News website:

Lopez, M. (2020). 87% of New Yorkers Approve of Governor's Handling of Coronavirus Pandemic. News10.com. Retrieved from News10.com website:

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1st ed.). New York: Knopf.

Segal, M. (Writer). (2020). COVID 19 [Cable Television]. In FOX NEWS (Producer), Tucker Carlson. USA: FOX Network.