Q&A: Managing Perceptions, Expectations, and Information Fatigue in a Pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic erupted onto the world stage, records were shattered for the number of visitors to news sites and viewers of television broadcasts. In March 2020 alone, The Guardian received 2.17 billion pageviews—vastly more than its previous record of 750 million in October 2019. However, by mid-April, interest in coronavirus news was waning. According to WIRED, online traffic to COVID-19 content fell to normal news levels after a month of intense interest.
This could signal that people are heeding World Health Organization guidance to tune out the news if it is too distressing, or it could signal that people are growing desensitized to pandemic news and COVID-19 developments.
Regardless of the public interest, however, the threat continues, which poses a challenge for security leaders who strive to provide accurate, timely, and actionable information to their constituents. Security Management interviewed two CSO Center members—Anders Noyes, CPP, director of security for Skywalker Properties, and Paul Moxness, managing partner for NorthPoint International, Ltd.—about how they cut through the noise to manage perceptions and communicate effectively with stakeholders and organizational leadership during the crisis.
How do perceptions—either from your stakeholders, your leadership, or your employees—color your security responses during a crisis?
AN. I think perception drives agendas and priorities, so with that context I found that particularly true during this pandemic. The sheer volume of information, and misinformation in some cases, that people at all levels of the organization were receiving passively or actively was overwhelming. There are a lot of factors at work here that influenced our stakeholders, leadership, and employees—fear, uncertainty, reliance on various websites on the “interwebs,” rumors, etc.
PM. Perception is very important, so words need to be carefully chosen depending on the audience one is speaking to. That said, aiming for good perception should never get in the way of truth and transparency. I’ve always said that crisis communications is only truly effective if the crisis response and management is good.
How are you managing perception around the pandemic?
AN. Very early on, the Safety Committee for my organization took point in communications. Members of my team lead that committee and developed a weekly communication in the first weeks just prior to the shelter-in-place order coming out for our area [San Francisco, California] to provide fact-based information and dispel rumors. We actively sought input from our people about what they’re hearing and reading, and what they believe to be true. In some cases, we were able to confirm the information, but in a significant portion, we found that the information was inaccurate in part or in whole. Clear communications with curated information from our team kept our employees particularly focused on scientifically backed information at an expected pace.
PM. At NorthPoint International, we are trying to be a source of trusted and relevant information via the portal of COVID-19-related resources we have set up on our website and made freely available to all.
Where are you sourcing credible, compelling, verified information and intelligence that can help drive effective decision making within your organization during a crisis?
AN. We looked toward CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and WHO [World Health Organization] as our two primary sources of information about COVID-19 itself. We relied on state and local news sources for the evolution of the response in our specific area, paying less attention to how the situation was evolving in other areas of the country. That is not to say we weren’t watching for “lessons learned” in the response, but we put everything into local context as we evaluated the situation.
PM. The best sources of credible information continue to be the government and international agencies tasked with this responsibility, e.g. WHO, CDC, etc. That, together with networks of trusted, competent contacts—such as the weekly huddle organized by ASIS International CSO Center for Leadership and Development—are my go-to sources.
How are you communicating with relevant stakeholders about non-pandemic risks and business challenges right now?
AN. We are using an instant messaging service companywide and doing frequent video chats with our employees in small and large groups, by department and division, to companywide invites to listen to the leadership talk about the business and what is happening as we stay nimble in our reactions to the current crisis.
PM. As part of our regular blogs and newsletters at NorthPoint International, we are very cognizant of reminding our networks that as security and resilience leaders it is imperative to keep your eye on the entire range of risks your organization faces. There is huge focus on the pandemic now, and that is necessary, but we know that other risks have not been replaced. They are still there, and some of them are even likely to grow during and in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Are you running into any “COVID-19 information fatigue” among your stakeholders or organizational partners? How are you addressing those challenges?
AN. I addressed this in part above, but there is fatigue associated with the sheer volume of information that we are all receiving. I have received “Our COVID-19 Plan” from every organization I do business with personally, as an example. I guess there are important pieces to that information, but in general with a company I only ever do business with online, the communication becomes noise and is largely ignored. For us, this was an important thing to acknowledge as it guided us to keep our messages short, relevant to our operations and our culture, and written in a way to serve our employees with information geared to keeping them safe.
PM. Especially in today’s world where we are overwhelmed by endless streams of information, “fatigue” was something that could crop up even before the pandemic. That is one of the reasons we put out our newsletter every three weeks instead of daily or weekly. We can always put out a special extra edition if there is news of imminent importance, but in a world where every other headline seems to be “Breaking News,” we want to make sure our information is relevant and timely without being viewed as repetitive in the form of too much, too often.
For more COVID-19 news, webinars, tools, and resources, visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak Security Resources page.