Coronavirus: Lessons can be drawn from SARS when using comms to assist health policy

The terrifying coronavirus outbreak, with its epicentre in China, reminds me of my time living in Asia at the time of SARS.

Comms lessons can be drawn from the handling of SARS in the coronavirus outbreak, argues James Acheson-Gray
Comms lessons can be drawn from the handling of SARS in the coronavirus outbreak, argues James Acheson-Gray

I had just opened a new Hong Kong office for Grayling and our recently appointed managing director was quarantined in splendid isolation with various flight restrictions in place.

That was 17 years ago, three years before anyone had heard of Facebook, let alone Weibo or Twitter.

The phenomenal growth of these social platforms has transformed how stories travel in ways that are well-rehearsed on the pages of PRWeek. However, the enduring principles of communication for governments around pandemics have remained consistent from that time.

The primary tension in a medical emergency is between wanting to reassure – and certainly not to cause alarm – on the one hand, and, on the other, ensuring that the public remains vigilant and alive to the threats.

Obviously one has to be guided by the medical experts but, where possible, a calm and considered approach is preferable - easier said than done.

Equally, from what is currently a relatively safe vantage point in Europe, it's all too easy to pontificate on the right approach.

Singapore was one of the countries worst hit by SARS, with more than 30 deaths.

We worked with some of the authorities to look at how they were communicating and eventually to advise how they might rebuild their conferences and exhibitions business, working with the Singapore Tourism Board, both of which were recording dramatic drop-offs in the number of inbound visitors.

Communication was seen as a critical tool in their response to the situation and there were a number of principles that we kept in mind.

First, it's important to recognise that the public looks to trusted news sources. You need to ensure that they are properly briefed and as 'onside' as possible.

As you would expect, the internet is currently awash with doom and gloom, so a more balanced perspective is crucial. 

The primary tension in a medical emergency is between wanting to reassure and certainly not to cause alarm on the one hand and ensuring on the other that the public remains vigilant and alive to the threats.

James Acheson-Gray, founder partner at Apella

In Singapore we focused communication on the BBC and the local government-owned media Channel News Asia, The Straits Times and its Chinese-language equivalent, Lianhe Zaobao.

These remain important today, but in 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) and other bodies such as Public Health England are better able to communicate information directly to the public.

Helpfully, Google's algorithm is currently prioritising what might be regarded as recognised news sources, even if you search for doom and gloom.

A former colleague there tells me this is part of its Global News Initiative (GNI), which is focused on 'combatting misinformation during breaking-news situations'.

Second, for the work in Singapore we also focused on ensuring a 'consistency of approach' with the other recognised authorities; the public are very attuned to discrepancy and will generally latch on to the most alarming developments.

We found that by sharing statements in advance with other bodies one can tease out any potential inconsistency.

Another principle was to 'reassure through perspective': at the time of writing, 81 people are known to have died through coronavirus virus, but details on its growth rate are sketchy.

And, unlike SARS, there are reports that sufferers are contagious even before symptoms appear – worrying stuff.

On the other hand, swine flu (H1N1), which did receive classification as a global pandemic, killed more than 200,000 people in 2009, its first year.

Keep in mind that the public perception of pandemics is the Hollywood version, with massive chaos unleashed at lightning speed as medical staff in biohazard suits fight to contain it.

The lockdown of Wuhan is in stark contrast to 17 years ago, when the existence of SARS was denied for quite a long time.

With SARS, it became increasingly clear that efforts to calm public fears by understating the magnitude of a potential health crisis had backfired. We should be grateful that any attempt at a complete cover-up would these days be impossible.

That said, even now the WHO and other outsiders are struggling to get a realistic and up-to-date view of the situation.

We also found that simple guides and illustrations of the preventative measures being taken – images of temperature-sensing devices and hand-sanitising facilities, along with infographics outlining safety procedures – provided critical reassurance for a very worried public.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, we worked very hard to avoid providing journalists with blurred messages.

Get this wrong and you risk losing a major ally in the fight against the virus.

We made sure that reporters had access to scientists and medical specialists to assist them. As ever, the message is critical.

Our messaging encouraged the public to take responsibility for hand-washing and other steps that they needed to take to protect their health.

With SARS, and indeed other subsequent outbreaks, the willingness of those working in the health professions to share their knowledge and experience with journalists encourages informed reporting that, in turn, strengthens the ability of individuals to take effective precautionary measures.

Ultimately, the relative containment or otherwise of coronavirus will come down to the steps being taken in China by brave medical professionals and the authorities, but history also teaches us that the role of open, balanced and accurate communication at times of crisis is equally crucial.

James Acheson-Gray is a founder partner at Apella

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