Mandy Cohen on Leading Through Crisis


Strategies to be a leader who people trust and turn to for guidance and support in tough times.

Oliver Wyman Health

2 min read

If 2020 proved anything, it’s that public health matters and, at its core, public health is about communications. People rely on clear recommendations from their leaders, and if the healthcare and academic communities cannot present complex information in a way that’s easy to understand, we all fail. But why is such a simple-seeming activity as communications so deceptively complex? And what does “truth” really mean in the fog of a politicized crisis?

We address these questions below in an interview with Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and Noah Higgins-Dunn, reporter for, recorded during the 2020 Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Summit. Here, Mandy outlines her journey helping North Carolina's citizens prepare for and navigate COVID-19. Says Mandy, communicating simple messages about hard topics that were evolving in front of everyone's eyes was a key leadership imperative when COVID-19 first began spreading. Below, Mandy dives into how leaders can develop effective public health communications rooted in trust, truth, and authenticity.

Watch the Conversation from the Health Innovation Summit

Memorable Moments

  • Mandy on the importance of analyzing information: Data points are not perfect. They are more like snapshots. The percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive, for example, is just a subset of tests, not all reported tests. This kind of thinking is necessary to make informed decisions. 
  • Mandy on why repetitive data analysis is crucial: One day of COVID-19 data does not give us "the answer". Nor does one metric. A leader who looks at cases for one day can't really make an educated decision based on a short-term information window.
  • Mandy on the future of the COVID-19 vaccine: There is an opportunity with the flu vaccine to build back leadership trust ahead of the COVID-19 vaccine. Trust is built before a crisis starts, not during or after.
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