A Leader’s Guide to Crisis Communication

A Leader’s Guide to Crisis Communication

Hassan A Tetteh | Military Medicine

A Leader’s Guide to Crisis Communication: Lessons from Ebola for COVID-19

Hassan A Tetteh | Military Medicine

"However, as bad as things were, the worst was yet to come, for germs would kill more people than bullets."

Crisis Defined

"A crisis is defined as a critical turning point, a time of intense difficulty, or danger when an associated important decision is made to protect individuals from harm and save lives. Indeed, in their book Theorizing Crisis Communication, professors Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger outline over 2 dozen typologies of crisis. They assert that a crisis poses a significant threat to high priority goals such as life, property, security, health, and psychological stability.2 Collectively, the threats to high priority goals create anxiety and stress, and often require some immediate action by leaders in response to the crisis to limit and contain harm.

Clear communication by leaders during a crisis is essential to limit harm and ultimately resolve the crisis. General axioms of crisis communication include preparation, communication plan development, and coordination of message through designated personnel.3 However, even in the best cases, critical information can be lost in communication and consequently place lives at risk.

The consideration of “what to communicate and how to communicate” during a crisis using lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak as well as lessons now emerging from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is the focus of this perspective. This perspective offers practical guidelines for leaders identified here as the 3 W’s and 4C’s of crisis communication. These factors offer a checklist to be readily applied in a crisis, as well as in training for crisis response.


Thomas Eric Duncan died at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on October 8, 2014. He was admitted with Ebola. Two nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, cared for Mr Duncan at the Dallas hospital, and they were each diagnosed with Ebola days later. Both nurses survived Ebola.4 However, as Americans learned more about the disease, the nurses’ ordeal highlighted the severe global threat of Ebola. The disease claimed over 4,000 lives and provided the professional health community many lessons, including how to communicate during a crisis. At the time of this writing, over 247,000 individuals have died, worldwide, of the coronavirus in the COVID-19 pandemic.5 This perspective borrows lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak to serve as a practical guide for leaders facing the COVID-19 challenge. It has implications for leaders who must communicate during a wide range of crises. The perspective focuses on “what” and "how” to communicate.

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A Leader’s Guide to Crisis Communication: Lessons from Ebola for COVID-19, Hassan A Tetteh, Military Medicine, 2020

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