Coronavirus – Crisis Management, Risk Communications & Practical Advice for Key Executives

In the face of a coronavirus pandemic, prudent business owners and managers should be using “peace time” to prepare for the worst.

Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications

Viruses that originate in an animal and jump to a human can and often do change or mutate, presenting challenges to doctors and researchers.  Especially during rapidly developing situations, reporters will likely demand simple and definitive answers, even in situations where simple and definitive answers don’t exist.  As well, bloggers with political agendas may accidentally or purposely report fact as fiction and vice-versa.

On the internet anyone can be a “reporter” with the ability to publish immediately and without the traditional safety net of editors, fact-checkers and other traditional media gatekeepers. Consider also the pressure on traditional media of balancing the need to report immediately vs. reporting accurately. Given those factors, the emerging coronavirus provides another fertile field for confusion with consequences.

The Spanish Flu killed some 50 to 100 million people worldwide over about a year in 1918 and 1919 – one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.  The 2003 SARS outbreak turned out to be less than a pandemic, but caused 774 deaths in 17 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The 2009 Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak featured high rates of human-to-human transmission, yet was thought to have been less lethal than originally feared, with a minimum of 18,449 confirmed deaths.  In fact, though, the Centers for Disease Control has since estimated the global death toll at 284,000 – 15 times those confirmed cases.

All these examples should serve as cautionary tales for how we approach and talk about this latest potential pandemic.

I reached out to Dr. Peter Sandman, perhaps the United States’ preeminent risk communication speaker and consultant.  Here’s what Sandman told me in his email reply:

The key lesson here: The word “pandemic” means an infectious disease has spread to lots of people in lots of places.  To be a pandemic, an outbreak has to be widespread and intense.  It doesn’t have to be severe.  1918 was.  2009 wasn’t – at least in comparison.

This coronavirus?  The experts are pretty sure it’s going to go pandemic.  They don’t know yet how severe it will be, though many are guessing it will be closer to 2009 than to 1918.  Even a mild pandemic kills a lot of people, simply because a small percentage of a huge number is a lot of people.  And a mild pandemic can certainly be disruptive: hospital overcrowding, absenteeism, supply chain problems, etc.

But if it’s mild and stays mild, it won’t be catastrophic.

Whether it’s mild or severe, a pandemic eventually makes containment efforts futile, and therefore a waste of effort.  Patient isolation, contact tracing and monitoring, quarantines, and travel restrictions are the four main containment tools.  The first two are conventional.  The last two are controversial, not because they’re less effective than the first two but because they have bigger downsides.

None of the four, separately or together, can stop a pandemic.  They can slow it a little, which isn’t nothing: It buys time for preparedness (emotional as well as medical and logistical).  But as soon as the virus is spreading widely in a place, that place has no further use for containment.

The risk communication lesson now: Stop telling people that containment will “work.”  If the coronavirus goes pandemic, as noted immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and nearly every other expert expects,  eventually (and probably pretty soon) it will be spreading widely in the U.S., too, and containment won’t make sense.

One feature of the 2009 flu outbreak was the changing nature of advice.  At first, pregnant women were to receive priority for inoculations.  Then it was anyone with a compromised immune system, then those over the age of 60.  As I recall during this era before social media exploded and become a main source for news, reporters, columnists and other pundits were quick to criticize the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and other federal, state and local health officials for the lack of definitive advice and prognostication.

As this is being written, there is no way to tell if the coronavirus is going to be highly infectious but not lethal or highly infectious with a high degree of lethality.  It might even burn itself out – or it may seem to go into hiatus but then come roaring back in the fall (as did the Spanish Flu).

Government agencies are already placing visitors from China into quarantine.  This may suddenly escalate, with the closures of airports and other ports of entry.  Stock markets may dramatically tumble – but then recover just days later.  Or they may not.  And if things really escalate, schools, malls, theaters and other venues may close – and grocery shelves may empty. In the face of this uncertainty and volatility, prudent business owners and managers, should be using “peace time” to prepare for the worst.

Now is the time to:

  • Examine your sick-leave policies.  Family-leave policies, too, should be looked at because many employees may unilaterally decide to hunker down at home, especially if they have small children or elderly relatives to care for.
  • Encourage and utilize good hygiene practices (e.g. hand-washing, coughing into the crook of the elbow instead of the hand).
  • Consider what a travel ban might do to your business.
  • Remind your employees – and yourself – to depend on only the most reliable sources for information about coronavirus. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health boards are reliable. Facebook isn’t — and the advice given by the pundits on cable television must be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt.
  • Remember to remind all of your stakeholders that situations like this are fluid and that the information given out now may be preliminary and subject to change. Even advice from the CDC and WHO can change, depending on the facts at-hand.
  • Employees, customers, and other stakeholders will cross-check what you tell them against other sources.  If you mislead them, they’ll hold it against you.  Be especially careful not to sound over-reassuring or overconfident, which Sandman says are the two most common crisis risk communication mistakes other than outright dishonesty (also common, sadly).

About the Author:

Bruce M. Hennes is CEO of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications. Hennes Communications serves government agencies, corporations, manufacturers, education and healthcare institutions — as well as law firms and their clients — that are “on trial” in the Court of Public Opinion.

With over 40 years’ experience in communications, Bruce and the firm’s past and present clients include the Cleveland Host Committee for the 2016 Republican National Convention, the American Public Power Association, Avery Dennison, Lubrizol, Kent State University and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as scores of law firms and municipalities across the continent. 

Bruce has served for ten years on the executive committee of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association where he chairs the bar association’s Governance Committee; he is a four-time keynote speaker at the ABA’s Bar Leadership Institute and he presents more than 40 CLE’s a year on the subject of Crisis Management for Attorneys & Their Clients. Bruce also chairs the Selection Committee for Leadership Cleveland and he’s an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. 

In 2011, he received the Communicator of the Year award from the International Association of Business Communicators – Cleveland, and in 2013, a Gold “Rocks” award and “Best of Show” award from the Public Relations Society of America, Greater Cleveland Chapter, for his crisis communications work related to a ferry boat crash in New York City’s Financial District. In addition, he was named one of the “50 Game-Changers of PR for 2017” by industry publication PRNews. More recent, he was named to the Lawdragon 100 Leading Consultants and Strategists, the definitive guide to the financiers, recruiters, marketing and communication gurus on whom the legal profession relies. According to Lawdragon, “These are 100 of the most trusted advisors to the legal profession.”