Last year, the world began waging a war against a new enemy: COVID-19. As the threat emerged and casualties mounted, the year 2020 brought changes in the way people conduct business, accomplish personal tasks, pursue education, and celebrate milestones. The pandemic also highlighted the mandate for a different type of leader: one who shares information transparently while taking appropriate measures to mitigate risk and – crucially – recognizing the importance of a more personal and human approach to communication.
Captain David Baird, USN, Commanding Officer of Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota, Spain, has been that leader. Baird and his leadership team developed and executed a plan to keep members of the NAVSTA Rota community safe, healthy and mission-ready. A central tenet of that plan was, in Baird’s words, “calm, compassionate, clear and factual communication.”
His strategy has been successful.
Since the start of the pandemic, the number of COVID-19 cases within the NAVSTA Rota community has remained low and relatively isolated. Meanwhile, the atmosphere on the base has been calm, and compliance with recommended public health measures has been high. Baird’s success navigating a public health crisis while fighting this new enemy, Covid-19, is a case study in effective leadership.
Preparing to Battle a New Kind of Threat
As COVID-19 ravaged Spain in Spring 2020, the NAVSTA Rota community remained focused on its mission. With cases rising sharply throughout the country, Baird and his leadership team were closely monitoring the spread of the virus and had taken measures to prepare for what might come.
By the end of March 2020, Spain was under a state of emergency, with all non-essential businesses closed and non-essential workers under a stay-at-home order. NAVSTA Rota had switched to a “minimum manning posture,” many base facilities were closed, and base schools had transitioned to remote learning. By early April, face coverings were required in all buildings.
Implementing these drastic operational changes was a massive undertaking, but an equally difficult challenge was less straightforward: successfully leading the NAVSTA Rota community through the pandemic. It was a tall order at a time when uncertainty about the virus warranted panic and fear, and face-to-face interaction had suddenly become extremely limited. Fortunately, Baird was able to draw on his combat and risk management experience to devise a strategy that all would embrace and that would keep everyone safe and informed, while also allowing his command to accomplish its mission.
Developing a Communication Strategy
Early in the pandemic, one of Baird’s first orders of business was figuring out how to communicate with the entire NAVSTA Rota community to keep everyone informed and avoid panic. With limited information, people were understandably anxious and feared for the safety of loved ones, both locally and back in the US.
Baird harkened back to advice a mentor once gave him: Rather than treating others the way you want to be treated, “treat them the way you want your children or your parents to be treated.” Baird added, “The parent part was so important, because many of us were worried about elderly parents, [who are] at a higher risk.” Baird summarized the advice another way: “View others in the way you view the people you care about the most.”
With that axiom as a backdrop to his communication philosophy, Baird was keenly aware of the importance of transparently sharing credible, accurate information. However, he recognized that “there is no such thing as perfect communication.” Rather, it’s an ongoing process of constant improvement and an effort to “connect with [people] in a meaningful way.”
All of this was the foundation for the communication plan that he and his leadership team devised. With in-person gatherings not an option, they had to find alternate ways to reach members of the NAVSTA Rota community. Baird and his public affairs officer (PAO) decided they would “use every other means available,” including social media and AFN Rota radio to share information, answer questions, and keep the community informed in real time.
Communication without face-to-face interaction
In developing the communication strategy, Baird recalled his conversation, many years earlier, with the PAO at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan regarding the 2011 Fukushima disaster and how the command had communicated about the evacuation of dependents. Answering questions and sharing information ‘round the clock via Facebook proved to be the most effective communication tactic.
Baird explains, “people crave every piece of information they can get. If information is not provided by an official source, they’re going to find an unofficial source that probably isn’t as credible.” He and his team determined that communication via Facebook would work well in the face of this new crisis, and he began publishing frequent updates on the Naval Station Rota Facebook page.
Initially, the updates consisted primarily of data on the spread of COVID in the Andalusia region of Spain, but in late March 2020, Baird began taking a new approach. As members of the Rota community were suddenly confined to their homes and severely restricted from daily activities, sharing numbers wasn’t enough. He wanted to put the information into perspective and help them truly understand what it all meant.
He explained, “I started telling stories using some of my life experiences to help figure out: How can we frame our current situation, and what does the future look like?”
Baird talked about everything from personal courage, to fear, to his experiences training for an Ironman triathlon and as a member of the rowing team at the United States Naval Academy. Each update was focused on helping the NAVSTA Rota community understand the current situation and where it was all headed, while keeping everyone motivated. The updates were honest, personal, and empathetic, and they quickly resonated with the community. Readers commented on the posts, thanking Baird for his candor, positivity, and leadership.
In response to one of Baird’s early “story-telling” updates, a member of the Rota community commented, “NAVSTA Rota is exemplifying true leadership right now. Capt. Baird, you are setting the standard for military leadership through this experience and I hope other commanders follow your example.”
A hallmark of Baird’s updates is transparency. He has been careful to share what his leadership team knew – and what they didn’t know – at all times: “Acknowledging there are a lot of things that we don’t know is important to establish credibility and maintain credibility about the things that [we] are stating as fact.”
He also explained the “why” for each new constraint on daily activities: “Every restriction we put into place was grounded in some sort of data.” His explanations, along with his acknowledgement of how difficult and frustrating the restrictions could be, made the news more palatable to the NAVSTA Rota community.
As one Facebook follower commented, “We know this is a super challenging situation and one that none of us planned on or wanted to be in, especially while living abroad. But we truly do appreciate your transparency and communication, and we commend you for how leadership has handled this difficult time here.”
The constant COVID-related communications through Facebook, town hall meetings and on AFN Rota – more than 300 since the start of the pandemic – prompted more than 10,000 comments and questions from the NAVSTA Rota community; a clear indication that members have been engaged and paying attention.
The global military community takes notice
Current members of the NAVSTA Rota community weren’t the only audience for Baird’s Facebook updates. Among the thousands of people following along were family and friends of service members stationed in Rota, retired service members, and those who served at NAVSTA Rota in the past. Baird’s leadership has meant a lot to them.
One parent wrote, “My daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter are currently stationed on your base during this crazy event. I’m extremely pleased with the way NSR is keeping everyone posted on the current issues in and around the base and country.”
Another parent simply said, “Our son and family are with you. Glad you are in Command.”
In response to one of Baird’s very candid updates about the need for all members of the NAVSTA Rota community to keep their guard up, a Navy retiree had this to say:
“As a sailor who once served in Rota, ultimately retiring from the US Navy, I have seen and read many memos of consequence. Your writing and eloquence in communicating the current issues on healthcare and the pandemic are simply outstanding. I have not, as a healthcare professional, seen better than what you transmit. If more leaders did what you do, we would all be in a better place pandemic-wise.”
The path forward and lessons learned
Baird and his leadership team continue to remain vigilant and share continual communication amidst the gradual lifting of COVID-related restrictions in Spain and rollout of the vaccine. As of April 2021, Naval Hospital Rota had already administered both doses of the Moderna vaccine to thousands of members of the NAVSTA Rota community, including active duty service members and US civilian workers, along with their adult family members. TRICARE-eligible retirees and family members were also offered the vaccine.
More than a year into the pandemic, Baird continues to refine his leadership strategy. He explains, “I’ve realized that maintaining a sense of calm is important.” He also recognizes that it is important to “meet people where they are in terms of their current level of knowledge of the COVID situation.” When imposing new COVID-related restrictions or making changes to the base routine, Baird must provide context and justification to explain why those measures are necessary.
In addition, new people are coming to the Rota community all the time, so it’s a continuous process to bring everyone up to speed on local requirements.
Baird says that one of the most important lessons learned through this pandemic is “the value of having a team that works well together and supports one another.” Indeed, Baird has been surrounded by a strong team who helped navigate all aspects of the pandemic. Long before the vaccine became available, the Naval Hospital Rota team established a very effective testing and contact tracing system. DoDEA leadership quickly transitioned base schools to remote learning. The Public Health Emergency Officer (PHEO) examined every line of operations on the base to confirm that sufficient COVID restrictions were in place. The Spanish Liaison Office translated more than 1,700 pages of legal documents to ensure Baird and his leadership team understood the current Spanish laws and policies. Baird’s PAO worked around the clock ensuring that all communication reflected the latest restrictions and guidance, some of which changed several times per week. And MWR leadership made numerous overhauls to their supply chain and other processes at base eateries to accommodate changing restrictions.
Members of the base community also came together to help and support each other. They made and distributed homemade face-coverings before masks were widely available. They purchased food and other items for those who had PCS’d to Rota and were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. They looked out for each other’s children and pets. And they complied with base and local COVID safety measures.
Successfully navigating through the pandemic has been a group effort, but it all starts at the top. Through his leadership, Baird set the tone for an environment where members of the NAVSTA Rota community could trust and support one another.
As COVID restrictions are gradually lifted and the future remains unknown, the wisdom Baird offered to the community last year, in the throes of the pandemic, still rings true and illustrates why he has been an effective leader for NAVSTA Rota during this crisis: “The transition process will take time. We will need to proceed slowly and methodically. It will be frustrating at times, and we may need to reverse course at times. But each transition will bring us one step closer to our new normal, and each step forward will be a sign of improvement. It will be a long road to travel, but I look forward to traveling it with all of you.”
Featured image: Capt. David Baird, commanding officer of Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota, Spain, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Hospitalman Viviana Lao, assigned to U.S. Naval Hospital (USNH) Rota, Spain, at NAVSTA Rota’s movie theater on 16 January, 2021. USNH Rota has begun administering the vaccine to frontline healthcare and first responders as part of the vaccination campaign. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eduardo Otero)