Communicating on Coronavirus: The First “Viral Virus” of the Social Media Era


Richard S. Levick, Esq., Chairman & CEO, LEVICK

Fears over the coronavirus COVID-19, the first viral virus of the social media age, have taken several unsettling turns since the disease was first detected in China’s Hubei province some eight weeks ago. The lead Chinese physician just succumbed from exposure to the virus, sadly joining too many of his colleagues. 

Some 2,800 people have now died, with more than 80,000 infected. It will soon surpass in size the 2003 SARS epidemic. The latest trepidation centers on whether infected cruise line passengers could spread the virus in the U.S. and other countries, a legitimate concern that’s been exacerbated by groundless right-wing accusations that the virus was deliberately inculcated at a Chinese plant

The economic cost is also escalating. Some of China’s biggest companies will be reporting substantial revenue losses and diminished market share, problems that are sure to spread in all four directions of our global economy. Lost amid the dire financial news from large publicly traded companies such as Starbuck, FedEx and Apple are the small shops and restaurants in multiple Chinese cities that have closed for want of visitors, and Chinese citizens who cannot leave their homes due to quarantines. The suffering is both human and financial. 

Whether driven by fact or fiction, real concerns or reckless demagoguery, commentary about the virus gets enormous play every day on social media that ricochets – much of it unfiltered – from one culture to the next. As we continue to learn, Twitter is not reality. 

The epidemic is also dominating the news, becoming the story in many U.S. and international outlets, notes global information and intelligence analyst Leigh Fatzinger, the Founder and CEO of Turbine Labs. Fatzinger has been studying media coverage and market volatility since the inception of the crisis. Turbine Labs’ AI-intelligence platform updated its coronavirus analysis on February 19. Its findings include:

  • Earned media volume increased significantly in the first weeks of February, more than doubling the previous month’s.
  • In early February, Reuters reported that the Coronavirus “shows no sign of slowing.” Meanwhile, the U.S. was accused of spreading panic and manufacturing fear by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. 
  • Numerous publications began comparing the virus to SARS. Keywords such as “plunges” and “dives” were used to describe Chinese markets.
  • Many industries reported a halt in factory production, while the Dow “rallied,” in part due to a stimulus from the Chinese government. 
  • On February 10, the death toll passed 1,000 in China, exceeding the 2003 SARS outbreak. During this time, more than 300 firms, including Xiaomi and Meituan Dianping, sought massive bank loans to soften the blow caused by coronavirus.
  • On February 18, Apple announced that its worldwide iPhone supply would be temporarily constrained, which caused the markets to dip. HSBC announced that it would be cutting 35,000 job and $4.5 billion in costs, in part due to constraints caused by the coronavirus. 

“To date, the markets have, on balance, absorbed the increasingly negative ‘news’ about the crisis without reacting too adversely,” Fatzinger says. 

“But these latest developments about the lethal spread of the disease could disrupt certain markets, especially given the speed at which stories travel, as well as the impact that social media virality and algorithms have in highlighting and amplifying dramatic content,” he adds.

Given the mis- and disinformation that surrounds the virus – coupled with the lack of trust most people have around the world for information emanating from their “government” – what can organizations do to allay the concerns of employees and stakeholders? So many U.S. companies today have supply chains – subsidiaries, vendors, suppliers, et al. – with roots in Asia. How should companies handle their communications in a way that convey useful information without unduly contributing to public worries or anti-Chinese bigotry?

Risk managers the world over are grappling with those questions. To protect its people and assets, institutions must take a series of smart, proactive steps and aggressively communicate them – internally and externally. 

Every organization is different, but your initiatives should revolve around the following tenets:

Safety first, unacceptable risk last. You need to assume the worst – and you can’t afford to take undue chances with someone’s health. If that means suspending certain vulnerable operations and removing your people from an unacceptably precarious situation, then that’s what it means. Better to absorb a short-term financial dent than risk a calamitous accident down the road. 

Get good information – and get it in the hands of your people. These links contain insights and recommendations from credible epidemiologists and other scientists. Make sure your organization’s health care professionals sign off on whatever information you’re going to share – and get it to the rest of your people and loved ones right away.

Keep it simple and clear. This is no time to be subtle or nuanced in your communications. Make sure whatever actions you take and personal health care recommendations you share are communicated in direct, no-nonsense, simple-to-grasp language – preferably on a special “What We’re Doing to Keep You Safe from the Coronavirus” webpage. Let the epidemiologists deliver in-depth analysis through their links. Keep your actions easy to read – and easy for your people to take to heart. 

Transparency above all. Make sure that your primary forms of communication – website, intranet, whatever – all have an easy-to-navigate route to your actions and personal health-and-safety recommendations. And make sure that the media covering you – national, local, industry, social – knows exactly what you’re saying and doing. They probably won’t file stories, but they need to know that you’ve been doing the best you can. The same holds true for key stakeholders and decision-makers. Make sure they have easily digestible information at their fingertips.

But remember the danger posed by mis- and disinformation. We can’t afford to mishandle the first viral virus of the social media era. Better to err on the side of caution and give your people the information they need – in a hurry.

Richard Levick 2020About the Author: Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator.


1 Comment

  1. Lisa Poliah on at 1:43 PM

    Thank you for a well explained analysis. I’m in the Caribbean, fortunately no cases have been reported to date. As expected misinformation dominates social media particularly when the increase in cases elsewhere makes it to the news.

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