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Revelations from the daily grind of COVID-19 press conferences

Jeanne Sparrow MSC – communications consultant, specializing in media and presentation training

Every single day during this COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another press conference to watch… often with dread. Not just because of the dramatic statistics, dire predictions and the concern and fear they cause, but also for the missed opportunities to reach people, deliver the information needed to be safe, or comfort a nation in shock. Those are the times I look at the screen and either roll my eyes or feel the anger rise in my chest… then click off altogether or move on to something else.

The argument could easily be made that these daily pressers only increase the chances that a leader or expert will make a mistake and create a public relations disaster for themselves and the organizations they represent – or even worse, put people in mortal danger – and some certainly have in my opinion. But that daily grind with such high stakes also presents them with a rare opportunity to create a good practice of communicating well in ways that make the most powerful impact.

Standing behind that podium day in and day out is a fresh chance every day to learn what works and what doesn’t – a learning curve which, in our current state of affairs, could make a crucial difference in saving more lives. Some leaders and experts are truly succeeding at that and that’s what I choose to focus on, mainly because that’s what I (and my sanity) need right now, but also so we can learn from their examples and repeat their good habits, in any setting where we want to be effective.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot are at the top of my list of politicians who are getting it right. And one expert I’d like to see more often is Dr. Emily Landon, lead epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine. Her appearance at the joint press conference announcing the shelter-in-place order for the State of Illinois was refreshing and exactly what I needed to see at that moment in time.

What they’re all doing well in their own unique ways help them successfully cut through the cacophony of voices screaming for our attention right now. And we can emulate their approach to make our own voices heard when presented with the opportunity to use them.

Each of them shows us who they are in the way they carry themselves and speak to us. Governor Cuomo is straightforward and assured with a warm sense of humor and humanity… Mayor Lightfoot is no-nonsense and direct with her concern for Chicago’s safety… and Dr. Landon comes across as caring and passionate about saving lives. Their fearless revelation of their authenticity and emotion show us who they are, what they’re feeling and how they approach this crisis, which opens the door for us to connect with them as individuals – creating a bond that also opens a route to trusting not only them, but what they’re saying.

They all know how to put their messages into context so we understand why what they’re telling us is important and relevant to us and our particular situations, increasing the chances we’ll do what they’re asking and act on the information we hear. Governor Cuomo is particularly good at using stories to give context – his Sunday dinner memories from this recent press conference drives home his concern for his state’s well-being and gives an example of how to do something he thinks is key in achieving that. (scroll to around the 20:00 mark). Both Mayor Lightfoot and Dr. Landon reference their own families in their remarks, painting indelible pictures in our minds of our own families and the scenarios we could face.

Perhaps most importantly, all three seem to understand and are focused on what the people they’re speaking to need to hear and how they need to hear it… not just on what they showed up to say. All communication is a two-way street – it’s never just about the speaker, delivering a message, saying their piece. It’s always about making sure that message lands the right way in the ears of those who would receive it. And right now, that part is particularly challenging because the messages being delivered are often not what anyone wants to hear. Mayor Lightfoot does an extraordinary job of conquering that challenge when discussing the prospect of closing Chicago’s lakefront path and parks to enforce social distancing.

What these three practitioners show us is that if we can find ways to connect with each other as the truest, best versions of ourselves, revealing that and sharing information through stories that stick with our audience and do it in a way that honors each other’s needs, we will be successful at communicating whatever we want to… whether it’s as globally critical as saving lives in a pandemic or as intensely personal as sharing love and care for someone else.

In these unusual and unprecedented times, nothing we’re doing looks quite the same as it did before. And it likely won’t ever go back to how it was. Let’s work to make sure it’s better going forward.


Jeanne Sparrow (’91, MS ’15) is a member of MSC faculty and is a speaker, consultant and 3-time Emmy-winning television and radio personality. Jeanne helps people and organizations find more success by fine tuning the way they tell their stories, express themselves and communicate their value. She believes that words and how we deliver them have power that can change lives – and even the world – when used with intention and purpose. Connect with Jeanne at and on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.