30 THE ADVOCATE
VOL. 79 PART 1 JANUARY 2021
express our condolences and thoughts to an elder who died on the weekend.
I had the opportunity to reach out to the family to express our deep,
deep condolences and sadness.”
At her September 28, 2020 news briefing, she said, “The best thing we can
do—all of us—is to take a step back from our social interactions, travel less
and connect with others virtually. We can stand together by standing apart.”
During a March 8, 2020 news briefing, Dr. Henry fought back tears as she
encouraged people to physically distance and gather virtually, especially
with the elderly, who may be more susceptible to severe illness. “It’s a very
difficult time,” she admitted to reporters. “I’m feeling for the families and
the people that are dealing with this right now.”
Public figures need to be sensitive to a broader concept of risk. Facts and
risks are subjective for experts and the public. They are a blend of values,
biases and emotions. Without feelings, facts and evidence lack meaning.
The emotional dialogue that takes place around risk issues is often
unconscious as we focus on facts. We are unaware of our own feelings and
those of others. In a crisis, we need to be conscious of the emotional dialogue
and bring these hidden feelings and concerns to the surface for discussion.
We need to acknowledge with empathy and compassion how
people are feeling.
Risk communication will fail unless it is a two-way process, a dialogue of
the heart where both sides have something worthwhile to contribute. I
learned an important lesson about speaking from the heart from the Dalai
Lama when I spent time with him in Dharamshala. At the end of an interview
for my book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, he pointed at my forehead
and said, “I think you acknowledge sometimes the Western brain looks
more sophisticated, but in Tibet we operate from the heart, and this is very
strong. So combine these two, Tibetan heart and Western mind, and then
we will have real success—real success.”9 We need more warm-heartedness,
more compassion, and we need to make this part of how we communicate.
Dr. Henry excels at this communication strategy.
SIMPLE, CLEAR MESSAGES, REPEATED OFTEN, BY TRUSTED SOURCES
My colleague Ed Maibach (a professor of communication at George Mason
University) says that “every major public health victory of the last century has
had effective communication at its heart.” With this in mind, he created a onesentence
aphorism to explain how effective risk communication works: “Simple,
clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”10
In the public square, more information does not always lead to greater
understanding. We live in a complicated, busy world. People have a lot on
their minds. Our capacity for complexity and detail is finite. In a crisis,