Photo Caption: NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/09/29: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo holds daily media announcement and briefing at 633 3rd Avenue, Manhattan. Governor discussed Stabilization and Recovery Program for the state as well as uptick of positive infections in some areas of the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will meet with Orthodox Jewish leaders to address COVID-19 clusters in communities downstate. He emphasized importance of wearing masks, social distances and enforcement of compliance. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
This article was written by Forbes Contributor Edward Segal. It originally appeared on Forbes.com on February 20, 2021.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Decision To Withhold Covid-19 Information Underscores Need To Disclose All Facts About Any Crisis
News that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had withheld information about the number of nursing home residents who died because of the coronavirus is a reminder for business leaders about the importance of disclosing all the facts about any crisis situation. A lot can be at stake if they don’t.
The Heart Of The Matter
As recapped by Deadline.com, “In releasing nursing home death tolls, critics had pointed out that the Cuomo administration did not include as nursing home deaths the deaths of nursing home patients who ultimately died in hospitals.”
The New York Times reported last week that, “Admitting a degree of fault for the first time, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Monday that his administration’s lack of transparency about the scope of coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes in New York was a mistake.
“By failing to answer questions from state lawmakers, the public and the news media, Mr. Cuomo acknowledged, the state created a void that was ‘filled with skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion.’”
Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment for this story.
Cuomo denied there was a cover-up. The fact that he wrote a book last year extolling the importance of communicating information about the coronavirus crisis to the public was not forgotten by Newsweek, the BBC, and other news organizations.
As he wrote in American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, “The main challenge for me was to communicate this data to the public in a way that would establish my credibility for providing timely information with transparency while also instilling confidence.”
Last November, Cuomo received an Emmy “in recognition of his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic and his masterful use of TV to inform and calm people around the world.” There’s been no word since the nursing home data crisis broke whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will rescind the honor.
Paying A Steep Price
Holding back what you know about your organization’s crisis can ultimately damage relations with customers and clients, and the image, reputation, and credibility of your company or organziation.
Elected and officials who hold anything back about a crisis can run the risk of paying the price via investigations, political recriminations, a loss in credibility and popularity, and being defeated for re-election.
Un-elected public officials can suffer a similar fate for their handling of a crisis. But in lieu of being defeated at the polls, they can be fired, forced to resign or retire.
It did not take long for federal officials to launch investigations into Cuomo’s management of the coronavirus crisis.
On Thursday, CBS News reported, “The FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have begun a preliminary investigation into how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration handled nursing home residents who contracted Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic a person familiar with the matter told CBS News.”
The Truth Matters
People who are impacted by a crisis deserve and expect to be told about every aspect of the crisis. This includes details about what happened, why it happened, when it happened, where it happened, who is responsible, and how it happened. Although all information may not be immediately available in a crisis situation, it should be shared as soon as possible.
Christine Reimert is executive vice president of Devine + Partners, where she heads the communication firm’s issues management practice.
“Listen, the truth matters all of the time, and that is especially the case in times of crisis,” she said. “Withholding information or hoping that a better narrative will emerge later nearly always exacerbates the crisis.
“It create[d] the ‘void’ that Governor Cuomo is acknowledging now—a void that is filled by others either with misinformation that you have to disprove or with facts that now have you on the defensive,” she observed.
The Better Strategy
Reimert said, “The better strategy is to be transparent about bad news in the moment and, at that same time, to speak to the actions you are taking to solve or address the issue.
“It will be a difficult conversation or press conference, and you may not have all the answers at that moment. [But] being upfront and transparent minimizes the leaks and other theories that fuel the kind of investigative reporting, legislative investigations, and reputational hit the Governor is now facing. And in this case, that information early on may have saved lives,” she observed.
Sridhar Tayur, a professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, observed that, “Trust is an important aspect of leadership. In our current times, when folks are using data to make policy decisions, that affects people’s lives and livelihoods, it becomes imperative that “trust in data” not become a major stumbling block.
“Additionally, the widespread misinformation in social media has already created significant confusion as to what people can believe. [Cuomo’s] decision to withhold data has not helped in building confidence in the political leaders or the healthcare system that have been under attack for some time,” he said.
“Transparency during a public health crisis is severely important,” according to emergency medicine attending physician Dr. Ken Perry. He did his residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, one of the largest health care systems in the country, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“Public health is a very precarious balance between transparency and fear. Leaders in healthcare, business and government must figure out a way to balance the need to tell the public everything that is important, while also mitigating fear,” he said. “It is also necessary to determine that lack of disclosure will actually do more harm than good, which may correlate with Gov. Cuomo’s current situation.”
Sending The Wrong Message
Crisis and reputation expert Michael Toebe said, “While I respect the concerns [Cuomo’s] team voiced about the reason for the delay in communicating, the fact is it is heard and interpreted as being defensive, dishonest, and an excuse.
“The comments try to rationalize the decision making to people who saw loved ones suffer and or die. It’s poor form and does nothing to protect, restore or reconstruct reputation quality,” according to Toebe.
He noted that, “The lessons to consider, if one is receptive to learning, is [to] think more about the people in harm’s way than your self-interests how you will look.
“In this case, that was a gross miscalculation of responsibility and short-term thinking that only temporarily managed (risk). Any good leader will know what they are fully responsible for and exhibit courage despite the risks, consequences or self-interest.”