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Effective crisis communication during outbreaks depends on authenticity, not hope


Today’s rapidly changing information cycle can either be a cure for bad news or make it worse.

In the case of an epidemic (or likely pandemic) like the coronavirus, this type of instant access merely feeds the public’s need for more details.

Yet misinformation during a crisis is sometimes more prevalent than the facts, which — along with science — are increasingly under attack, not just in this country but also around the globe.

Consider the results of a Feb. 27 survey from 5W Public Relations that found 38% of beer drinkers would no longer buy Corona under any circumstances and 16% didn’t know whether Corona beer is related to the coronavirus.

Hold my lime-infused beer.

What the world needs now is … facts

We need accurate, timely updates to help us make informed decisions about how countries, governments, businesses and individual citizens should react and respond to a serious global crisis like this one.

It’s not a coincidence that the regimes that are the most oppressive and least transparent in terms of sharing information (i.e. China and Iran) have been among the hardest hit by the virus. Getting essential facts about the illness in the hands of health care workers and increasingly worried citizens is critical. That can’t happen if government institutions are more concerned about protecting their reputation than keeping people safe.

The two best fact-based resources to understand widespread disease and public health threats in real time are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Both have detailed summaries of the current crisis on their websites, here and here. Each also has prevention strategies that include basic precautions similar to what is recommended to guard against the common cold or flu.

The reality is the WHO believes a coronavirus pandemic is near. (As I write this today, the WHO has yet to categorize coronavirus as such only for semantical reasons you can feel free to explore here.)

According to the CDC, coronaviruses are common in people and animals. Some early patients in China were connected to a large seafood and live animal market. But other patients reportedly did not have exposure to animals. Person-to-person spread has now been reported outside China, including in the United States. Increasingly, new locations have seen “community spread,” meaning some who are infected are not sure how or where they became exposed.

It’s a fluid situation, as doctors currently struggle to determine how many are ill and what the mortality rate is. Thus far, most deaths have been confined to the elderly and those with underlying health issues. Most people are expected to experience only mild symptoms.

Those are the facts, but anything more I write today specific to the coronavirus will be dated tomorrow. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use our current situation as a litmus test for what needs to happen when we next encounter a deadly strain of disease — because it will happen again.

What coronavirus reminds us about ALL crisis communications

At WordWrite, we handle about a dozen crisis situations per year. We’re in the middle of two right now.

In our experience, there are four main types of crisis:

  1. Acts of God
  2. Acts of man
  3. Acts of God, made worse by man
  4. Acts of man, made worse by God

An epidemic or pandemic would be an example of an act of God, made worse by man. It’s made worse by man, literally, in the way we unintentionally pass disease to one another. From a crisis communications standpoint, it’s also made worse by man if the information isn’t conveyed promptly and accurately.

Most crises are predictable. This one is not. That doesn’t mean you can’t prepare. Hope is not a strategy.

We trust our doctors and scientists to develop a vaccine and help curb the spread of infectious diseases. It also turns out we should also listen to them when it comes to communicating during a crisis, because they follow a similar playbook to one we’d recommend at WordWrite.

Many of the suggestions offered by the CDC in the midst of the bird flu outbreaks that began more than 20 years ago are still relevant for any government or business leaders today.

  1. Show empathy.
  2. Suggest an appropriate action to take.
  3. Show respect.
  4. Communicate information clearly and quickly.
  5. Stick to the facts.

Similarly, the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Risk Management Guidance from 2017 offers a straightforward, no-nonsense assessment of what an effective strategy should contain, including “processes to collect, develop and distribute information in a timely manner, and procedures to ensure that formats are appropriate to the target audiences. The strategy should take into account behavioural [sic] aspects of how people react to, and act on, advice and information they receive, not only from authorities but also from sources such as mass and social media. Public understanding of hazards and risks is complex, context-dependent and culturally mediated.”

When communicating in any crisis, these elements win

Both the CDC and WHO are referring to what we at WordWrite would describe as the three critical elements to creating an effective story behind your crisis response: authenticity, fluency and engagement.

We would label these as the building blocks to uncovering, developing and sharing your Capital S Story — why anyone would buy from you, work for you, invest in you, partner with you, etc. In the case of a crisis, this story answers the question of why anyone should trust and believe what you’re saying.

You must always start from a place of truth, sharing the factual perspectives of those working in your organization to incorporate their viewpoints on an important topic, which, in this case, would be a rapidly evolving public health issue.

Next, you engage these expert storytellers to share their assessments because they are the most qualified to inform and educate the public on a particular subject. They are not always the president or CEO of a company or leader of a country. This approach helps dispel myths and reduce concerns about corporate or political agendas driving the communications strategy.

Finally, if — as the WHO argues — the public’s ability to understand risk “is complex, context-dependent and culturally mediated,” then we must consistently measure the engagement level our target audiences have with the messages we share during a crisis.

Today’s modern communications strategies often ignore the characteristics the WHO describes — deep human experiences rooted in biology and shared culture.

The cure for a crisis of communication

Constant noise blurs the lines between belief and facts. “Fake news” is part of the lexicon. Digital clutter is a virus of its own.

Effective storytellers are hard to find, especially in a crisis. People who are reliable and relatable in their ability to communicate their knowledge of your organization and the issues impacting your audiences are at a premium. Identify them and let them do their jobs.

Any crisis has heroes and villains. Public skepticism of government institutions is at an all-time high. Your business or organization doesn’t want to function from that kind of reputational deficit.

Operating from a crisis playbook built upon the principles demonstrated in your Capital S Story can build trust as well as keep your people informed and safe.

In an epidemic or pandemic, the only real bad guy should be the actual disease.

Looking for help with your own crisis communications plan? WordWrite offers Crisis Training as part of its Chapter Series training sessions.

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