Competency refers to the capacity and resources required to successfully achieve current and future actions—the ability to do what you say you will do. In the VHA’s case, it was visible in Dr. Stone’s focus on operational capabilities, reducing administrative barriers, frontline response, and providing information on therapeutics which underlined the agency’s competence in battling the pandemic.
His confidence in the competency of his employees was also a constant refrain. And this confidence was supported by data; Veterans’ trust in VA had consistently improved since 2016 and their regularly measured trust score was between 70% and 75% when the pandemic hit in early 2020.5 He consistently reiterated his belief that those closest to the bedside knew best, and demonstrated his unwavering trust and respect for his employees.
Taiwan offers another example of the role of competency in building trust. The Taiwan Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) played a critical part in not only communicating effectively during the pandemic but also taking actions to reassure residents.6 The CECC’s daily live-streamed press conferences provided residents with important information on health screenings, city restrictions, mask stockpiles in pharmacies, and other public health protocols.7 These communications were accompanied by actions on the ground.
As early as December 2019, Taiwan medical officers snapped into action based on early accounts of a potential virus spread in China. The country activated its public health protocols put in place during the 2003 SARS outbreak to put early travel restrictions, health screening for people traveling from China, and shoring up mask production by deploying military personnel.8 In addition to demonstrating their preparedness, clarity, and ability to respond, they also served as a central resource for up-to-date and trustworthy information for people through their ongoing, informative communications.
Humanity describes the values and resolve that demonstrate commitment to others’ interests, well-being, and individuality. This is the need to show that the government genuinely cares for its constituents’ experiences and well-being by demonstrating empathy, connection, and kindness. For instance, Dr. Stone encouraged and facilitated employees getting to know him beyond their titles and degrees. His openness and authenticity allowed employees to show the same—sending him personal messages about what was happening in their lives. They shared a connection while never wavering from the agency’s mission to save lives.
Sometimes empathy and fairness in communication come from a leader’s or organization’s ability to accept and acknowledge wrongdoing from the past. In February 2019, the city of Edmonton in Canada got a new police chief—Dale McFee. The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) had a history of concerns from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and two-spirit (LGBTQ2S+) community going back decades. In May 2019, Chief McFee, in front of a packed atrium of members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, police officers, politicians, and other dignitaries, made a public apology to the community.9 “To the members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and two-spirit community—both across the public and within the service,” said Chief Mcfee, “on behalf of the Edmonton Police Service, I am sorry and we are sorry.”10
The chief’s message was clear: The department cannot change the past, but it can acknowledge, apologize, empathize, and build pathways for a better future.11 The message was direct, naming and acknowledging the emotional realities, not just changes to policies and processes.
Integrity outlines the standards and norms that are consistently expected for relevant interactions. It signals that leaders will follow ethical standards when making decisions and openly share information, motives, and choices (wherever required and possible) related to policy, budget, and program decisions in a straightforward language. This was especially important because decisions and guidance shifted throughout the pandemic as more information was discovered. In some messages, Dr. Stone outlined the allocation model for vaccines or how a major decision was made. This allowed employees not just to see the end product but to understand the different implications and considerations that went into it. He was frank that these were hard choices that did not always make everyone, including him, happy.
In October–November 2020, El Paso, Texas, was in the middle of a brutal COVID-19 wave, with the city having the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country. With the arrival of a new mayor in January 2021, who himself had lost his mother and brother during the second wave, the administration decided to overhaul its communication strategy.12
The new mayor and his administration wanted cooperation from constituents to rein in the infection rate in the city. Beyond talking directly to residents, the city also created a COVID-19 dashboard, allowing the leadership team to be transparent and base its message on a single source of information. The dashboard was made public-facing to allow people to check information and build trust in the city’s COVID-19 response on the ground. The efforts paid off with El Paso becoming the first city with 81% of the population above five years of age fully vaccinated by May 2022.13
By baking in the three elements of trust in communication, governments can create and foster an environment in which organizations and leaders are trusted and messages are believed. However, government leaders also face the challenge of choosing the right tools, practices, and platforms to reach their constituents.
Bringing it to life
While both audiences and communicators may be more prepared for the pandemic today than two years ago, the next challenge for executives will be different. Strategies that focus on trust can be adapted to different situations and contexts. The work of a cross-functional communication team is to leverage approaches from multiple disciplines to address the trust deficit. One of the key advantages of trust is that it does not necessitate the agreement of all stakeholders. Trust doesn’t reflect confidence in an individual action, outcome, or response but the ability to navigate uncertainty because of a relationship.
Our perception of any content has emotional and neurochemical roots in our beliefs about the people and ideas surrounding or generating that content.14 In practice, this means that by understanding the psychology of trauma and stress, leaders can understand their stakeholder’s emotional landscape. Stress changes our perception at a chemical level and can impact our understanding of everything from words and images to team members and our environment.15 Several psychological approaches underline how the level of distress in our bodies can change how we hear and intake information even when it’s right in front of us.16 Adding behavioral health professionals to communication teams can change the tools and approaches they have at their disposal.
The following examples are not exhaustive communications plans but they show how responses might change when viewed through the lens of building trust. While crises can exacerbate the need for trust, it is better to be building it constantly. If leaders maintain authenticity and connection in good times, stakeholders may be more prepared to trust you when challenges arise. A steady state communication team can engage in many of these practices today even without a dedicated rapid response capability, but when the headlines focus on you, and you have everyone from journalists to unions waiting for your statement, it takes a specialized team.