Context, centralized info key to preventing coronavirus panic

Communicators aren't getting the information about coronavirus that they need, but they can still prevent worries from getting out of hand.

A disinfection worker in protective gear sterilizes a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
A disinfection worker in protective gear sterilizes a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Government agencies and corporations have a major problem as they work to give stakeholders accurate and up-to-date information about coronavirus: They’re lacking a centralized source of information on which they can depend. 

Since the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, the country’s National Health Commission has said that more than 31,000 people have been infected and more than 600 have died, most of whom were in China.

However, governments and multinational businesses, especially tourism companies and organizations with supply chains in China, are lacking a primary information source about the virus, notes Gil Bashe, managing partner of global health at Finn Partners. 

"It’s evident that comms is not yet aligned [among major organizations]," he says. "What we don’t have is a central clearinghouse of expertise and accuracy that all partners can draw from."

Bashe notes that as the situation develops, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will likely increase its public-facing communications, filling a need for reputable information. 

"In the absence of an authoritative source, a void is created and people fill the void with what they think," he explains. 

Fueling the public’s fears are social media and the speed of the digital news cycle. Mentions of coronavirus spiked 19,905% over a 10-day period ending on January 30 across Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, Gab, Instagram and Facebook, according to AI software company Yoder. Combined with a stream of news alerts delivered to smartphones, the volume of information can confuse the public about the severity of the outbreak

"The instantaneous and constant communication on the number of new cases is definitely playing into public fear," says Devry Boughner Vorwerk, CEO of DevryBV Sustainable Strategies.

She adds that more could be done to simplify the issue for the public and to put the outbreak numbers into context, which could prevent panic. For example, the CDC reported 10,000 people died from the flu and 180,000 were hospitalized in the 2019-2020 flu season. However, PR pros also caution against downplaying the severity of coronavirus. 

"In today’s news cycle, there are constant alerts that pop up on people’s phones," Vorwerk adds. "They’re losing track of the severity of the situation."

Corporations should also be engaging their workforces often about coronavirus. Finsbury MD Kirsti McCabe says clients are looking for counsel to guide their employee communications to alleviate fears and anxieties and provide "regular updates to all important stakeholders," including investors, suppliers, business partners and their employees.

"Being transparent about the impact on your business and the steps you are taking to protect the health and safety of employees and minimize disruption to your operations will enable the company to take control of the situation and maintain confidence in its leadership," McCabe says, via email. 

Corporate communications executives should also set up "listening posts" to understand how to respond and on what channel, says Nigel Glennie, VP of corporate comms at Hilton. Although communications executives may have to rely on making direct postings on company intranets, he adds that their goal should be communicating directly about stakeholder concerns, not updating them constantly on the number of infected. 

"The concern is just as contagious as the virus," Glennie adds.

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