Bruce Hennes

By Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications

New coronavirus headlines, tweets and Facebook posts are piling up by the moment: first U.S. death, new cases of unknown origin, updated travel advisories, outbreaks in new areas.

This is how news of a virus spreads in the communications ecosystem in 2020, and it’s understandable if you’re wrestling with how and what to say to your organization’s employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Here are a handful of short, digestible, practical and do-able observations and suggestions, as well as a few links to credible websites and experts.  For more comprehensive, detailed information, we suggest you dig deep into those websites.  And of course, the crisis experts at Hennes Communications are available 24/7 to lend assistance.

First, some basics. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person-to-person. At present, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) advises that for the general American public, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is low. For most people who become infected, COVID-19 will cause mild illness followed by recovery. For others, infection can be more severe. The CDC currently considers the immediate health risk for workers in non-healthcare settings to be low.  For the most up-to-date information, we suggest visiting https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

Second, it seems clear we have moved beyond the point of simply reminding the people we work with to wash their hands thoroughly and sneeze into their elbows. The World Health Organization (WHO) has upgraded the global risk of a coronavirus outbreak to “very high” – its top level of risk assessment. Subsequently, smart businesses, schools and other organizations are moving now to set up communication channels for employees, studying travel schedules and making contingency plans for large numbers of people possibly being out of the office.

Here are some tips and pieces of advice so that you can serve as a trusted source of information for your organization:

  1. Be on-guard for misinformation, hoaxes and outright lies. Already, the internet is flooded with specious and ill-advised advice.
  2. Facebook is not a reliable source of information about coronavirus. While there may be nuggets and links to solid information, the white noise surrounding facts makes discernment difficult.
  3. True panic is rare. Treat people as adults and you’ll be surprised at how the vast majority rise to the occasion. It’s our belief that the way to engender trust in the long run is with honesty and transparency – because with rare exception, the truth always comes out.
  4. Scientists around the world are in clear agreement: the novel virus COVID-19 is nearing pandemic, which means it has spread worldwide. We don’t yet know exactly how lethal it is, how it spreads – and how quickly a vaccine can be developed and deployed.
  5. Politicians do the public no favors by obfuscating or minimizing the situation. Some do so for noble reasons (“we don’t want to unnecessarily alarm the public” or “let’s wait until we have the whole story”), but by doing so, they deprive the public of mentally preparing themselves for the sudden shock that this is really happening (example: the situation in Japan when the government abruptly closed all of the schools indefinitely). Also, rather than slowly and methodically making plans and purchases in case of store closings and shortages, a majority of Americans may soon find themselves waiting in long lines for goods in short supply – or that are not available at all.

Dr. Jody Lanard and Dr. Peter Sandman are considered two of the best risk communicators in the United States, with both having consulted for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and National Institute of Health, amongst many other government agencies and private companies. I want to thank both of them for providing inspiration for some of the above – and now I want to use some of their prodigious output directly, with much of what’s written below coming directly from their website at www.psandman.com.  If you want to know the “why” of what’s written below, you’ll find it on that website.

Here are 16 messages that you can deploy when a pandemic looks imminent. Please note that these messages were created in 2007 when the H5N1 virus was circulating, but they are easily adaptable to the current COVID-19 situation:

1.       It looks like a flu pandemic is about to start.
2.       It’s no longer about China.
3.       This is a new warning, more urgent than any warning so far.
4.       The experts still aren’t sure.
5.       We don’t know how bad it will be.
6.       We may have a window of opportunity now to make some practical preparations. We must make the most of it – even though the effort may be wasted if a severe pandemic doesn’t happen.
7.       What matters most is how households, neighborhoods, community groups, and businesses prepare.
8.       Individual and community preparations will focus on three tasks – reducing each person’s chance of getting sick, helping households with basic survival needs during a pandemic, and minimizing and coping with larger societal disruption.
9.       Social distancing – avoiding personal contact like handshakes – will be important but unpleasant.
10.   Hand-washing is far from a panacea. But it’s easy, it’s under your control, and it has no significant downside.
11.   Like washing your hands, wearing a facemask may help a bit. But it actually has more downside than washing your hands.
12.   Getting ready for a pandemic is largely about preparing for possible shortages.
13.   It’s probably too late to stockpile much now, but do what you can.
14.   Now is also the time to think about how you will care for loved ones at home.
15.   If the pandemic is severe, the hardest job won’t be coping with the disease itself. It will be sustaining the flow of essential goods and services and maintaining civil order.
16.   We are going into this pandemic crisis determined to be candid. That means you need to expect bad news, confusing changes in policy, conflicting opinions, and conflicting information.

A few other thoughts adapted from Sandman and Lenard:

  1. When the shortages start happening, the sources who warned they were coming will gain credibility (even though people will be angry), while sources who blindsided the public (by omission or over-optimism) will rightly be judged untrustworthy. It’s not as if this knowledge will be long in coming. Even if you say nothing about potential shortages, enough people will anticipate the worst to produce an immediate pre-pandemic run on supermarkets, hardware stores, drugstores, gas stations, banks, etc. You don’t have any good choices – only a dilemma you cannot escape. If you warn of shortages, you’ll be accused of contributing to panic buying. If you don’t warn of shortages, people will rush to the stores anyway, and you will be seen as an unreliable source. Warn of shortages. And share that communication dilemma with your audiences.
  2. Don’t give in to the temptation to over-reassure your stakeholders or the public. Your task is to validate their rising fear, help them bear it, and guide them through it.
  3. Remember – flu pandemics can come in waves, and the waves can vary in severity (there’s no clear pattern – later waves can be more severe or milder than earlier ones).
  4. It’s important to continually warn people that estimates of the pandemic’s severity may turn out to be inaccurate or may change over the course of the pandemic.

The bottom line:  We would much rather tell people that things were better than expected, not worse than anticipated.

Additional Links

Scammers Take Advantage of COVID-19 Outbreak to Carry Out Fraud    Homeland Security Today

There are warnings that scammers are taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to carry out investment frauds.

Such frauds involve claims that a company’s products or services will be used to help stop the COVID-19 epidemic, according to an alert issued by the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

FactCheck.org                   University of Pennsylvania

FactCheck is nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. They monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Their goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels.

Amid Misinformation, Trust Seen As Critical Factor For Coronavirus Comms Efforts  ProvokeMedia

Combating the onslaught of misinformation around the disease requires international collaboration as well as pre-existing trust.

Reprinted with permission. Bruce Hennes, www.crisiscommunications.com © 2020 Hennes Communications. All rights reserved.