THE ADVOCATE 27
VOL. 79 PART 1 JANUARY 2021
DR. BONNIE HENRY’S CRISIS
COMMUNICATIONS MASTER CLASS
By James Hoggan
F acing dozens of reporters, television cameras and by extension
millions of people during a crisis is a nail-biting experience.
Most people would not do well. Provincial Health Officer Dr.
Bonnie Henry has a knack for it. The regular briefings on the
COVID-19 pandemic delivered by British Columbia’s top doctor are a master
class in communicating during a public emergency.
As a crisis communications consultant, watching public figures handle
the pressure of high-profile crises is a professional interest of mine.
Although most of us will likely never face the challenge of speaking at hundreds
of pandemic briefings, we can learn useful lessons from someone
Dr. Henry handles herself with such composure that it is easy to forget how
difficult her job has been this past year. Pandemics stir up public fear, anxiety
and anger—emotions that do not usually lead to reasonableness and cooperation.
Early in the pandemic, Dr. Henry’s job was particularly tough. She had
to persuade people to upend their lives, stay home, steer clear of friends and
family, stop going to work, keep the kids out of school, stop visiting elderly
parents in the retirement home and avoid restaurants, holidays away and air
travel. There was life-or-death pressure. If Dr. Henry could persuade people
to do these things they really did not want to do, she would save lives. If not,
larger numbers of people would get sick, and some would die.
Dr. Henry also faced barriers to public communication that predate
COVID-19. We live in the fact-challenged age of social media. Billions of
people consume and share misinformation1 and conspiracy theories2
through Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms. Today’s public
square is polluted with anti-science disinformation.3 Anti-expert, antigovernment
activism is no longer on the fringe, especially on social media.
Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and climate change deniers flood Facebook. It
often appears that facts and science have a tougher time drawing a receptive
I once had more faith in the power of facts to prevail in public discourse.
Over time, I have come to believe they do not change minds the way we