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Pandemic Communications: An Interview with Bob Jensen
Elizabeth VenafroMay 19, 2020 9:45:00 AM9 min read

Pandemic Communications: An Interview with Bob Jensen

Bob Jensen led the U.S. government’s crisis communications efforts after the massive earthquake in Haiti, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response, Hurricane Sandy and over 30 other major U.S. disasters. He served as a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, as well as the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, and deployed on four combat zone tours to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan.


Mr. Jensen advises and consults with nations and corporations on crisis, emergency and disaster risk management. He has clients in the U.S. and across the globe, including the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, and energy companies in Australia. As a Fulbright alumnus and non-resident scholar with the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, Mr. Jensen speaks at conferences and universities globally.


Elizabeth Venafro: In situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people tend to question what could have been done to prevent or mitigate it. In your opinion, is there anything more that could have been done to prepare?


Bob Jensen: In my opinion, very little could have been done to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 for many reasons. This type of outbreak was bound to happen. We just didn’t know when and where. It will happen again in the future. We need to prepare.


Both media coverage and official review of crisis and disaster response inevitably get to the point where questions are asked, such as: Did we do everything we could have done? What did we miss in either preparation or response actions? If we didn’t do well, then “who” is to blame?


The delay in the World Health Organization’s designation of COVID-19 as a pandemic probably added to the delay in critical decision-making. That said, there were plenty of signs and reporting about the emergence of this disease that should have allowed countries and companies alike to do the following:

a) review their pandemic and crisis planning
b) review their levels of critical medical supplies (both personal protective equipment and medicines)
c) review their supply chains to see if/how they could be impacted
d) take the first steps and start planning for how to handle the response


Most countries were not unprepared, in the sense that they almost all had pandemic plans. The U.S. is no exception. The challenge is that the longer action is delayed, the more a disease, especially one like the coronavirus, has a chance to spread and it becomes harder to contain. This particular virus has the added challenge of a large number of asymptomatic carriers who can unknowingly spread the disease to a large number of people since they show no symptoms. Many factors played into the delay of key actions. Those are what should be reviewed.


Elizabeth Venafro: What research and planning can be done to prepare for similar situations in the future?


Bob Jensen: For governments and businesses alike, there are always things that can be done better. This is why it’s crucial to conduct an after-action review to identify things that went well, things that didn’t go so well, and things that were missed completely. These reviews give us insights into how to plan and prepare for future incidents.

The first thing I recommend is that organizational leaders look to make sure they have the right plans in place. The basic ones are:


a) business continuity plan
b) crisis action plan
c) crisis communication plan
d) IT critical incident response plan


Based on COVID-19, every organization should have a reopening plan, one that specifies how workers and customers alike will be protected; how processes and products may need to be modified to increase non-touch requirements; if and how technology can support telework (which is not feasible for all organizations); reviewing supply chains and introducing diversity of sources; identifying mission essential personnel and surge capacity teams; identifying critical products and possible new areas of business (introducing flexibility and innovation); and finally what the specific situations/issues are that would require shutting back down and how would that be done. Every organization is different, so there is no one size fits all template or answer.


Elizabeth Venafro: What are best practices for communicating with your stakeholders when such events occur?


Bob Jensen: The key best practices are to:


a) know who your stakeholders are, how they like to get information and what their contact information is (if possible)
b) have a crisis communication plan in place that covers both known and unknown risks and threats
c) regularly review, exercise and practice the crisis communication plan and supporting processes
d) use multiple channels of communication and have backups for when key channels are unavailable (such as during a power outage)
e) have key message templates prepared and tested so you’re ready to begin communicating quickly


Content is very important. You should be providing useful, timely and relevant information to your stakeholders, especially in times of crisis or disaster. If they don’t think what you are sending out is useful, they’ll stop looking at your messages.


Also, the use of Risk Communication principles in how you word your messages and information greatly increases the likelihood your audiences will understand and retain the information. Risk Communication is based on scientific studies that show how people handle information during crisis or times of great stress. There are many excellent sources on this available widely.


Elizabeth Venafro: What role can technology play in public safety?


Bob Jensen: Technology is the foundation for all future innovations in public safety. Information is the life blood of public safety, so the faster information can get to those who need it and the faster large amounts of information can be gathered, analyzed and interpreted, the quicker life-saving and life-sustaining decisions and actions can be taken.


From CCTV camera feeds to ID authentication to access control to using open source information analysis platforms to collect, collate and analyze large amounts of publicly available data, technology can do the work of hundreds of people in an instant. The increasing use of AI and machine learning attached to the Internet of Things will be supercharged with the roll out of 5G networks and the ever-improving performance of computers.


All of this will provide innovators and disruptors plenty of opportunities to come up with incredibly useful and powerful products, programs and processes to support public safety.


Elizabeth Venafro: What lessons can be learned from the COVID-19 crisis?


Bob Jensen: Every organization and industry will have lots of lessons from this situation. Here are six I’m sharing with clients and friends alike:


1. Have a plan in place to handle crises of any kind. Review, exercise and practice that plan regularly.
2. Have a system in place to identify emerging threats – economic, health, technological (disruption), political and criminal.
3. Review and diversify your supply chain.
4. Review and determine if/how technology can be used.
5. Rethink “normal” and how your business needs to evolve after COVID-19.
6. Research and read everything you can about what others are thinking and learning from the COVID-19 crisis.



Click here to read the Definitive Guide to Pandemic Communications