Share this post:

Communicating Through a PandemicBook Title:

Communicating Through a Pandemic A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future


Amelia Burke-Garcia

Publishing Information:

Routledge, 2023

Link to Buy Book:



The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us individually and globally—and the role of communication has been integral to the success and failure of our ability to respond and adapt to and begin to recover from this pandemic—as individuals, collectively as communities, and as countries. Whether we are talking about communication about the virus and mitigation strategies, communication between friends and family, the urgent crisis resulting in mis- and dis-information, our complex and diffuse media environment, or new workplace communication strategies, communication has been front and center in this pandemic. This book unpacks the many and varied roles that communication has played over the course of this pandemic, in order to help public health professionals, marketers and health communicators, and policymakers alike to understand what we have been through, what has worked well, and what we have struggled with. It will help us learn from our experiences, so we communicate through pandemics more successfully in the future.

Author Bio:

Dr. Burke-Garcia is a seasoned health communications professional with 20 years of experience in health communication program planning, implementation and evaluation. At NORC, she leads the organization’s Digital Strategy and Outreach Program Area and is part of the leadership team for NORC’s health communication science practice. In these roles, she designs and implements strategies that leverage the science of communication (in particular, digital media) to influence behavior. She has been overseeing the award-winning How Right Now/Que Hacer Ahora campaign since 2020, which aims to increase people’s ability to cope and be resilient. She is the author of the books Influencing Health: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Social Media Influencers and Communicating Through a Pandemic: A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future. She has been highlighted by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, for her work in honor of Women’s History Month and has been named to’s list of 10 Modern Female Innovators Shaking Up Health Care. She is a Founding Member of the Society for Health Communication and sits on the Boards of Directors for the non-profits, Vaccinate Your Family and the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice. She earned her bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies and Humanistic Studies from McGill University, her master’s degree in Communication, Culture and Technology from Georgetown University, and her PhD in Communication from George Mason University.

Book Excerpt:

Chapter 3: Dimensions of Crisis and Emergency Response Communication

Crisis Communication in the Private Sector

Crises, and the communication approaches used to address them, are phenomena experienced in all fields, not just public health. While the field of public health has been responding to crises (e.g., pandemics, wildfires, floods, contaminated water) for over 200 years, the private sector has dealt with its own share of high-profile and seemingly catastrophic disasters over the years.

In fact, crises in the private sector are quite common, and we do not have to look too far to find examples.

We have seen Uber lose 200,000 users in the wake of the #DeleteUber hashtag campaign that ensued when Uber continued its operations despite New York City taxi drivers striking in reaction to then‐President Trump’s travel ban.

United Airlines lost $800 million in value in just a few hours after a video surfaced of a man being dragged off of a plane, due to the flight being overbooked.

During the pandemic—when more people than ever were online and working remotely—Amazon Web Services (AWS) experienced several major outages to its services that threatened business operations for its clients.

Exercise equipment and media company, Peloton, received severe backlash when its holiday ad campaign (which featured a woman thanking her husband for getting her a Peloton bike) outraged viewers because the woman came across as “terrified” and “trying to please her spouse.”

Finally, we are all likely familiar with the data breaches that Facebook (before it was rebranded “Meta”) experienced in 2013. And in 2018. Oh, and again, in 2019.

And Meta’s own study that found that Instagram fosters feelings of anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia amongst teen girls.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of crises that private sector companies deal with regularly and frequently. Many other companies and brands (e.g., PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson, Motrin, Domino’s Pizza, DirecTV, their bottom lines and posed possible threats to their existence.

However, as of the writing of these pages, all of these companies and brands are still around. Yes, they may have taken a financial hit in the moment of their crisis. Maybe even lost some of their market share. And certainly they experienced some reputational damage. But the impacts of these crises have generally been short-term, and the companies have not been completely devastated or ruined by them.

This ability of private sector companies to prepare for, deal with, and come out OK on the other side of crises is seemingly common. And impressive (whether you like it or not). Large companies seem to always be well prepared to weather the “tweetstorms” of angry customers about product malfunctions, service interruptions, and poor experiences.

Because of this, spending some time looking at crisis response and communication in the private sector is vital to any discussion about emergency and pandemic response communication. Therefore, before we jump into discussing public health emergency response communication, I want to examine more closely some approaches and lessons learned from the private sector.

Specifically, there are four examples I want to look at in more detail. These four companies have successfully navigated some of the most well-known crises from over the last 40 years and they are generally regarded as the best. These are Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi Co., American Red Cross, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The ways in which these brands responded to their crises can tell us a lot about their crisis management strategies and teach us something about how we might approach our own public health crises.

Johnson & Johnson

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced a major issue when seven people who had taken the company’s over-the-counter painkiller, Tylenol, died from poisoning due to bottle tampering. To address this crisis, Johnson & Johnson took several immediate steps to identify the problem and address it.

They immediately ran advertisements to alert consumers not to take their product. They also stopped production and ordered a national recall. And in just six weeks, they designed the first, triple-lock tamper-resistant container to help prevent something like this from happening again in the future.

Their immediate and transparent response to the crisis helped Tylenol regain its market share. Their focus on the health and safety of consumers instead of profits in the short term helped them regain the trust of their customers, and this led to their continued success in the long term.

Pepsi Co.

In 1993, a Washington state couple claimed that they found a syringe in a bottle of one of Pepsi Co.’s products, Diet Pepsi. In response to the allegation, Pepsi Co. created a video campaign to demonstrate the canning process in an effort to show that such a mistake was simply impossible.

In doing this, the company aimed to be transparent in its communication with consumers. Additionally, by allowing its consumers to take “a-peek-behind-the-curtain” of its production process, Pepsi Co. was able to dispel the allegations and regain consumer trust.

American Red Cross

In 2011—in the early days of social media—an American Red Cross employee posted an inappropriate personal tweet from the organization’s account. It read,

Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer … . when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.

Instead of ignoring the tweet, the American Red Cross took a humorous approach and posted another tweet saying,

We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.

By addressing the issue in an authentic way, the American Red Cross managed to successfully handle what could have been an incredibly embarrassing situation. Coincidentally, this also happened to result in successfully securing additional donations in the wake of the issue.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

In 2018, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) experienced what could only be called a “nightmare” situation: Most of KFC’s outlets in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Ireland ran out of chicken!

In response to the outrage from customers, the brand placed a full-page ad in The Sun and Metro newspapers (leading newspapers in the U.K.) acknowledging their supply chain issues and apologizing for having to close down hundreds of their stores.

The ad also featured a “creative and humorous” visual: An empty chicken bucket with the company’s brand name letters rearranged to read, “FCK.”

KFC’s response was quick, smart, humorous, and on-brand. It helped to address the issue head-on, acknowledged people’s frustrations, and stopped the issue from becoming bigger than it was.

These examples demonstrate how the use of effective crisis communication strategies can help address issues, build trust, and maintain credibility in the face of critical situations. Moreover, there are similarities across the approaches employed by all four bands that enabled their success.

First, each brand chose not to remain silent in the face of a crisis. In these moments, it is crucial for brands to be aware of what is going on and decide the reputational impact of the crisis and how best to respond. By remaining silent, a brand may come across as detached and disinterested, and this may run counter to the brand’s values that it aims to embody. It is exactly in crises when it is most important to hold true to a brand’s values in order to craft a response that will navigate the issue successfully.

The brands’ responses were also simple. Each addressed the crisis with a simple message that acknowledged the issue and the steps that were being taken to address it.

As well, each response was fast. Relatively speaking, as soon as the crisis happened, all of these brands were quick to decide on and activate a response. To be able to respond quickly, however, means that you have planned ahead, that you have thought through what a response to a crisis might look like, even if you don’t know what the crisis will be. Pre-planning in advance of a crisis is critical to being able to respond quickly when something does happen.

All of the responses were also consistent and “on-brand,” allowing them to respond in a way that aligned with what people knew about them and made sense to their customers and constituents. This also helped to keep their brands front and center, all the while turning attention away from the crisis.

Many of them also used humor to address their crisis. Use of humor is a delicate thing, as it does come with the risk of appearing to make light of a serious situation; but the use of humor, in the right context, can help address crises in a way that can rebuild trust with people.

Finally, many of the responses addressed functional or operational concerns. That is, they aimed to help consumers better understand how an issue happened and how the brand was fixing that issue. This helped to show how each was addressing the issue and strengthened trust with their customers.

These are all good lessons for the public sector—ones that can be employed, in large part, in response to public health emergencies. 


Share this post: