I don’t know how Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, ever goes back to a life of relative obscurity when this strange time comes to end. She’s quickly become a bona fide local celebrity, a calming, trusted presence at the governor’s nightly press conferences to update us on the state’s efforts to combat COVID-19. And she is good at explaining the facts—beyond good, she is nearly perfect, yet to miss a beat. Dubbed the “explainer in chief,” Dr. Zink is doing so many things right when it comes to crisis communications she deserves her own highlight.
Here are five of the many ways Dr. Zink is crushing it as a crisis communicator:
- She knows her stuff. Clearly, Dr. Zink is a subject matter expert. She is confident in her answers, because she knows the how and why of everything she is asked to explain. Sometimes, she is asked questions that don’t exactly relate to her area of expertise, but she doesn’t freeze up or fumble her way through a rambling non-answer. She does what us public relations professionals are constantly telling clients in media training sessions – she finds the right source to answer the question. If that person isn’t readily available, Dr. Zink makes a note to find out and get back to the questioner. We’ve checked. She does follow up. This is a basic media relations skill, and she excels at it.
- Zink is empathetic and human. She makes sure we know she and her family are going through this with the rest of us. That may sound overly simplistic, but a drill sergeant could deliver the same news as Dr. Zink and instill a sense of fear rather than a sense of “we will get through this together.” Zink expresses care and concern for the health of all Alaskans, and sounds like she means it. She encourages Alaskans to take care of each other, and to check in on neighbors who may need a helping hand. Honestly, Dr. Zink would probably deliver a hot casserole to a vulnerable neighbor’s doorstep if someone asked her to. In a word, she comes across as sincere, another essential trait for effective crisis communicators.
- She is calm and composed under pressure. Does anything rattle this woman? Dr. Zink is in charge of communicating some pretty heavy stuff. Think about it: Every day, she and the governor go live in front of thousands of Alaskans, and tell us how many people have contracted the COVID-19 virus, or even died from it. She walks into a press conference knowing she must tell parents their kids can’t go to school, families can’t visit nursing homes, and traveling is basically off limits. The prospect of communicating scary news would cause many of us to stammer, lose our breath, ramble, or freeze up. While I doubt she enjoys it, it is clear Dr. Zink understands she must maintain professionalism and decorum no matter how overwhelming the news gets. She is tough as nails, but still comes across as friendly and approachable – both rare traits in times of crisis.
- She speaks plainly and avoids jargon. We don’t need to hear medical terms we can’t comprehend. We need to know how to protect our families. Lord knows the health care field is full of acronyms and terms most of us do not understand. Dr. Zink knows this, and goes out of her way to explain complex medical concepts in terms we can understand. Just like the governor did when he talked about tsunamis and how waves roll onto a shore, Dr. Zink uses analogies that make sense. My favorite was early on in the crisis, when just a few cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Alaska. You could tell Dr. Zink wanted to discourage the media (and all of us watching online) from thinking that maybe we would escape the worst of this virus. So, she used the analogy of seeing a storm brewing on the horizon, with these first few COVID confirmations symbolizing the first drops of rain hitting the ground before it starts pouring. Oh, and who can forget the whiteboard? Pulling out a whiteboard and drawing pictures that helped Alaskans visualize what the disease curve would look like under different circumstances made Dr. Zink appear more like a teacher than a doctor. In this case, she was both.
- She expresses her gratitude and recognizes her team without downplaying the serious nature of the crisis at hand. It has not gone unnoticed that Dr. Zink thanks journalists after every question, of which there are many, to say the least. Some cynics have labeled it overkill, but you can tell, or perceive, that she recognizes the role media play in helping keep Alaskans informed, healthy, and safe. Dr. Zink also spreads the love and makes sure we all know she has a large team behind her and touts the excellent work being done by employees in public and private health, private industry, non-profits and other entities contributing to tackling this crisis. In other words, she realizes she is not just a subject matter expert, but also a spokesperson, and wants to make sure citizens know about the many faceless heroes going the extra mile to keep us safe.
Often, a crisis can worsen when communications are poor. In this case, the situation has undoubtedly improved because of the excellent crisis communications skills displayed by Dr. Zink. We Alaskans owe her a collective, socially distant hug.