Melissa Schwartz knows all about staying level-headed during times of crisis. She’s an expert in crisis communications, and has worked in the Obama administration helping manage rapid response after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
She recently shared her insight about mindfulness and well-being in times of crisis as part of the Communication and Connection During COVID Speaker series, put on by UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Consultancy.
“As communications practitioners, we are most effective when we are calm and clear-headed. That was true before coronavirus, but it’s even more true now,” says Melissa, Chief Operating Officer of The Bromwich Group and an adjunct professor of crisis communication in UW’s Communication Leadership program.
Mindfulness, she says, is a key tool for staying clear-headed and navigating these uncertain times.
“Mindfulness means being centered in yourself, being aware of your limitations and accepting your feelings and vulnerabilities,” she says. “We’re not at our best when we’re panicked or exhausted — or when we have puppies and children and partners running around. So it becomes really important to maintain mindfulness.”
Melissa shared a wealth of strategies during her talk. Consider using the following tips and best practices for staying mindful and communicating effectively during COVID-19.
Know That It’s Okay To Be Stressed
Melissa started the evening by sharing her definition of a crisis: Anything that knocks you off of your game and puts you in disarray. While many people are tempted to belittle their circumstances and acknowledge how much worse they could be, Melissa takes a different approach.
“You’re allowed to be stressed out even if you are not sick, even if a loved one is not sick, even if you still have a job,” she says. “As a crisis communicator, the question isn’t whether or not it’s a crisis, it’s ‘what tools are we going to use?”
In Times of Crisis, Maintain STAMINA
Effective crisis communication isn’t just about using the right communication strategies — it’s about knowing when and how to stop and think, before taking action. Melissa shared her approach to communicating in times of crisis, “S.T.A.M.I.N.A.,” which stands for:
- Stop for a minute. Before you do anything, pause.
- Take a breath. Remind yourself to breathe, even for a few minutes. This will help you think through your next steps, instead of acting impulsively.
- Analyze the situation. Ask yourself what you know, what you don’t, and what information you need.
- Manage expectations. Create a roadmap for expectations. Outline what think you can and cannot do and what a realistic timeline looks like.
- Insist on coordination. Make sure everyone who is working, is working together. Create defined points of contact for different stakeholders.
- Negotiate resources. Consider what resources you have, who is available to do what, and when they can do it.
- Assess and repeat. Feedback is crucial. Make time to assess how your actions worked and what you could do better next time. Succeeding at this with a team requires creating a safe space for constructive criticism and vulnerability— lead by example.
Make Time for Self-Care
Self-care is another important tool for being an effective crisis communicator and fostering emotional well-being during times of crisis.
“These are scary times for all of us — you don’t have to be superman or super mom or super grandma,” Melissa says.
Making time for yourself may mean blocking out time for a call with friends or coordinating with your partner so each of you takes a shift watching the kids while the other exercises.
“If you’ve gotta walk your dog on a Zoom call, walk your dog on a Zoom call,” she says. “Do what you need to do to make time for yourself.”
Use Communication Best Practices
To communicate effectively during this time, you need to be responsive to what’s going on in the world, while also staying true to your mission. Melissa shared the following best practices:
- Make sure your website is telling your story. Many companies can’t engage in the way they normally do, and that’s okay. Make sure your website reflects the reality of the situation, including any delays in deliverance of services, and don’t be afraid to post something kind in these uncertain times.
- Be thoughtful about when and how you’re communicating. Sometimes you need to post, share or tell a story, and sometimes you don’t. It’s important to be responsive to the times, and tailor your content to the current world we live in, but don’t feel like every post needs to be about COVID. Your work is still important, and it’s okay to talk about that.
- Communicate clearly with your staff and colleagues. Ensure they know what’s expected of them and how to communicate about your organization’s work during this time.
- Have a designated point of contact for media and social media and have a backup person available. This is a huge responsibility for one person, and this person needs time for self-care too.
It’s Okay Not to Have All the Answers
We’re in unprecedented times, and it’s okay to ask for help. Lean on friends, partners, colleagues, and do your best to find answers when you don’t have them.
“Asking for help does not minimize your value, but making a dumb mistake can,” she says. “Ask questions and allow yourself to be vulnerable.”
Assess and Repeat
Always look for ways to assess your work. Looking at feedback from your team, consumer spending, and social media metrics will help you assess your communications strategy and make changes if you need to.
“Not every staff person wants to do a Zoom every day,” Melissa says. “Keep checking in with folks — and see if what worked a month ago is still working for them. Allow yourself to be flexible and nimble. That’s how you’re going to succeed.”
This event was the first in UW Communication and Connection During COVID Speaker series, put on by UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Consultancy, which is offering pro-bono communications consulting to small businesses, nonprofits and UW departments during COVID-19. Learn more about the consultancy and sign up for future events.
Written by Megan Herndon
Megan leads content creation, editing and strategy for UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Communication Consultancy. She also consults with clients about storytelling and content marketing. She’s a part-time student in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program and works as an editor for Message Lab, a healthcare communication and content marketing agency. She is passionate about storytelling and all things outdoors.