5 communication lessons from Dr. Anthony Fauci

The nation’s leading expert on infectious disease has also been a deft and effective communicator, bridging the partisan nature of American society to deliver his messages.

Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.

The most popular person in the country right now isn’t an entertainer, politician or emerging athlete. It’s the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Serving as the primary spokesperson for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci has become one of the most frequent and recognizable faces on our screens. His interviews have reached a diverse audience and, according to data published by Axios, he has emerged as a highly trusted source for the political right and left in all matters relating to COVID-19.

With multiple interviews and daily press briefings, Fauci has proven himself to be quite an effective communicator. In addition to his expertise as an immunologist, there are other reasons reporters want to speak with him and the public wants to hear from him.

1. He has credibility.

With over 50 years of studying infectious diseases and working with six presidential administrations, Fauci’s resumé is beyond impressive. But credibility can’t be established on credentials alone.

One reason Fauci’s words have weight is because he states what he knows and acknowledges what he doesn’t. He holds firmly to the facts and data presented to him while keeping his opinions in check. When he’s wrong, he’s quick to admit it and move on.

While it might seem counterintuitive that the “expert” doesn’t have all the answers, acknowledging your limitations can in fact bolster your credibility. Credibility is the foundation upon which we can build trust, and trust is vital when attempting to influence people’s actions.

2. He simplifies the complex.

We could see how an infectious disease immunologist could easily confuse listeners with complicated data points, charts and long-winded medical jargon. Instead, in every interview Fauci uses ordinary language to explain a dangerous and mysterious virus. Thank goodness we don’t have to take a graduate-level statistics course to understand what it means to “flatten the curve.”

This is critical in helping the public understand the nature of the crisis while helping fend off rumors and misinformation.

 3. He connects with a younger generation.

Fauci has participated in livestreaming events with influencers such as Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Curry and the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah.

It’s also clear that Fauci understands his audience. When referencing the Spring Break crowds gathering on the beaches and violating the CDC recommendations of social distancing, he stated, “I was young once and wanted to do those things.” He then went on to explain that even if young people don’t get sick from the virus, they could carry it to a grandparent unknowingly.

There’s an abundance of books and articles written on how to talk to, manage, understand and identify with millennials. Perhaps the most straightforward way to boost your credibility with young people is to be authentic, show that you genuinely care about them, and offer something of value for everyone.

4. He conveys a calming presence.

People are anxious, and they need reassurance from their leaders. Aside from his expertise in infectious diseases, Fauci’s calm and tempered demeanor is one of the reasons he’s in high demand these days.

Even when the forecast is bleak, as new infections and death tolls continue to rise in many areas of the country, he often reiterates that “we will get through this.” When appropriate, he also injects humor in the conversation with his interviewers—all of whom he addresses by name—which can bring levity to a heavy and stressful situation.

5. He stays on message.

There’s a format to most of Fauci’s interviews, and it’s structured around four points.

  • Here’s what we know based on the current data.
  • Here’s what the models are showing.
  • Here’s what we don’t know and need to find out.
  • Here’s what the public should do.

Regardless of the question, nearly every answer falls under one of those points. When reporters try to take the conversation into partisan waters, he gently steers the conversation back to his original message.

At the risk of sounding redundant, Fauci’s message discipline and consistency is crucial when it comes to providing accurate information in hopes to persuade people to band together (figuratively speaking, of course) to do their role in preventing the spread of the virus.

Joe McLeod is the managing partner at McLeod Communications, and co-host of the PR & Politics podcast.

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