I’ve done crisis management for over 34 years and have been stymied the past two weeks at the large number of supposed leaders, experts and communications professionals who seem to see it as their job to gin up panic. There’s no other way to say it.
To be clear, the enemy of any effective crisis management approach is panic. When someone starts to tell you that, “Now may be the time to panic,” they couldn’t be more wrong. There is never an appropriate time to panic, especially when the threat is real.
Oddly enough, I’ve heard the argument that “panic is necessary” right now to create a sense of urgency, to get people to pay attention to the health authorities.
Let me debunk that notion before we go any further. Panic does not create a healthy sense of urgency. It doesn’t get people to pay attention to information they need to know. It turns a rational mind into an irrational one.
Panic is what caused people on the Titanic to jump over the life boats without a life vest into the cold sea and certain death. The energy of panic creates unfocused, unhealthy chaos and cannot be channeled constructively in a crisis.
In the long narrative of history, we can find stories where the resulting panic did more harm than the triggering event. If you need a glaring example, study the stock market crash of October 29, 1929.
The Number One Objective: Reduce Panic
For this reason, the number-one objective of all crisis management is to prevent an over-reaction or panic reaction to any negative development. If you are a leader. If you are the parent of a child. If you are someone to whom at least one other person looks to with respect, you owe it to all of them to be a calming force. That is your objective. You can’t be a calming force if you project worry and panic.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s not spin. When people over-react to a negative event or a potential negative event, public attitudes go through a whipsaw effect. This means that there are wild and vast swings in public sentiment that cause people to take irrational actions that disrupt society in many huge, unintentional and unnecessary ways.
One rather silly example of this right now are the empty shelves where there used to be toilet paper. Yes, it is a sad statement that one of the first things people hoard at times like this is toilet paper, but the lack of toilet paper isn’t the real problem. It’s a symptom of the deeper problem which is that public figures and newsroom decision-makers have clearly decided not to be a calming force at the moment.
A more significant problem is when people over-react with their investment portfolios, making highly emotional decisions out of fear when to date, nothing material has happened to change the fundamentals of the economy. There is nothing to indicate that when the health crisis passes, the economy won’t rebound in very robust fashion. Nothing stimulates a marketplace like pent up demand. Who in leadership is delivering that message right now? If you find that person, trust them.
Five Things You Can Do
Based on my experience in crisis communications, here are 5 things you can do right now to reduce panic for yourself, for your family and for those around you:
#1 – Don’t speculate or believe those who do.
I saw a report of a group of researchers from a well-known university complain that there wasn’t enough data to properly assess the current situation on the ground for COVID-19. In the very next sentence, their spokesman speculated that 150 million Americans could be infected. In other words, on the basis of no facts, they still speculated a worst-case scenario with a number they could not substantiate. Its only purpose could have been shock value.
Why would they do that? I’ll tell you. It was to get their university’s brand name in the conversation. It was not about the needs of the public. It was about the need of their brand, a selfish motive, to say the least.
The more outrageous and dire they can paint the situation, the more likely their comments will end up in the news.
In the PR world, this is called “newsjacking,” where you try to insert your brand into a story that has nothing to do with you. In most cases, it’s harmless. But during times of pandemic, such speculation is dangerous and irresponsible.
The problem is, if you think the media seems to be reporting all of this negative news with glee, you’re probably not mistaken. Pandemics like this are very good for ratings, clicks and shares. The media is never more relevant than during times of crisis.
So, to keep the attention on themselves, news outlets thrive on extreme speculation. And they look for anyone with an M.D. after their name to legitimize their speculation. This creates panic and they know it. And the medical experts who want their 15 minutes of fame on cable news know that in order to earn that air-time, they must play the game. So, a few of them will heartily play along and speculate worst case scenarios.
With all of this in mind, if you want to do your part, remember that the number-one rule in all crisis management is not to speculate. Stick to the facts. Do not venture a guess on how all of this will turn out. The fact is you don’t know. If all of the talking heads would have done this, the coverage would have been and would be much more boring, and you wouldn’t see the panic you do right now.
#2 – Don’t believe anyone who isn’t an infectious disease expert already working on this situation.
As noted, if a medical expert on your screen is not actively working on this situation, chances are they have partial information at best. If the person on camera is a politician, you have to assume that anything they say will have a political agenda behind it, and as such, the public health interest may not be their highest priority when speaking.
But it’s not just politicians. Just a few days ago, I saw an article in my local newspaper where the local food and drink beat-reporter wrote an entire story around an interview with a bar owner in Rome. The assumption for both the reporter and the bar owner was that whatever Rome has experienced, Pittsburgh will experience.
If you want to contribute to an atmosphere of panic, one way to do it is have a food and drink reporter interview a bar owner to generalize on the spread of an unprecedented health pandemic.
I’ll make it simple. Your best bet on reducing panic is primarily to take your lead from the experts at the CDC right now. No one else.
#3 – Don’t justify emotional decision-making. Focus on the facts to date.
Next to avoidance of speculation, the most important thing to do in a crisis is to focus on the facts. Remove the emotion from the situation. Not because you don’t care.
A crisis is not a competition to demonstrate who cares the most. It’s a time to deflate the emotion from a highly charged situation so that the vast majority of the people can see things most clearly.
A local media personality I follow on social media has gotten sucked into the emotional aspects of this situation. He’s allowed his own emotions to guide his posts and he’s lost sight that, as a well-liked public figure, he can be and should be a calming force.
One of his more recent posts, as sentimental as it is, betrays an underlying sense of despair, not based on facts, but only on emotion. He posted, “We have reached a point of an unimaginable global event. No one could see this coming…everything we took for granted has been changed and challenged. Love your family and your neighbor like never before and remember what’s truly important, each other.”
Can I argue with his emotions? Absolutely not.
If that’s how he feels, I get that. But I can say that this is not the kind of language people need to hear to reduce panic. I’d argue that language like this actually feeds the panic. The facts he gets wrong are glaring. This was not an unimaginable global event. Infectious disease specialists imagine far worse than this scenario all of the time, and if you do a quick web search, you’ll find vast bodies of research that lay out processes to counter such scenarios, and worse.
A second factor this person has wrong is that “no one could see this coming.” Once again, while the COVID-19 was not planned, it is something world leaders plan for, and to some extent, expect over time.
And while it’s a matter of opinion, I’d say a strong leader would not presume so melodramatically that “everything we took for granted has been changed and challenged.” But that’s just me. My take is, he’s let his emotions get the best of him and he’s letting it show. Keep in mind, I do not begrudge the feeling, but his decision to air this kind of thinking does not reduce panic. It does not help the community cope, it contributes to an atmosphere of panic.
Facts are the Enemy of Panic
Facts are the enemy of panic. If the facts are processed in proper perspective, more often than not, we see things aren’t as bad as they first appear.
So, let’s look at some facts for COVID-19 and use a comparison that may provide context.
As of this moment (Monday, March 16, 2020), the number of Americans who have been confirmed as having the virus is 3,244. The number of Americans who have died from it is 61.
Because most Americans who may have been exposed to the virus have not yet been tested, statistically speaking, it’s common sense that as more people are tested, more people will test positive for the virus. This will drive the number of confirmed cases up. Keep in mind, it won’t change anything, it will simply confirm what we already suspect.
It will be very easy to turn this fact into a panic-generating headline. If the media can announce that 50,000 or 100,000 or more people have the virus, that would be good for ratings.
But there is one thing that the same statistics will reveal that the media will not play up, simply because it will provide the kind of perspective that could calm the public, and that’s bad for ratings.
As more people are diagnosed as having the virus, and as the number of people who actually die from it does not keep pace, the percentage of fatalities will drop. How much so will determine future panic levels.
It’s quite possible that the fatality rate could drop to a rate comparable to the common flu, meaning the entire crisis may not be as dangerous as feared. If that happens, it will gut the panic value of the COVID-19 story.
COVID-19 and the 2009 Swine Flu: A comparison
In America, the experts are telling us it will get worse before it gets better. That’s hardly a stretch. Right now, we have seen less than 100 fatalities in all of the United States. Even if it gets significantly worse, it still has a long way to go to match what actually happened in the United States during the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009.
The swine flu pandemic then was said to have killed up to 203,000 people worldwide.
The CDC reported in 2013 that, “From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus (swine flu).”
If you were to talk to most Americans, prior to these past few weeks, they may not even remember the swine flu. Most people certainly won’t remember being panicked over it.
The point here is that we do have history as our guide to tell us that pandemics have lifecycles of their own, that we have faced serious pandemics in the past and we’ve overcome them. That’s important to remember if you want to reduce panic. It’s important to forget, ignore or discount, if you want to create panic.
This can help when looking at a new situation as it unfolds, knowing that by simply staying focused on the facts in front of us, we can continue to treat the situation with all of the seriousness it deserves but with no good reason to panic.
#4 – Don’t assume what happened elsewhere will happen were you live.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, we see how the COVID-19 virus is impacting people from Paris to Sydney. Chances are if you’re seeing it online, it’s got all the qualities of a “viral” digital story or video.
But keep in mind, if you live in the United States, you’ve already had the benefit of learning how the disease spreads in those other countries. American scientists and researchers have had the chance to study the disease before it came ashore.
Further, the United States has one of the most vast and sophisticated health systems in the world, along with public mobilization procedures that give the U.S. a decided advantage over places like Wuhan, China or Italy in mounting an effective response to any virus.
Even on the issue of testing, while it can be argued that America has had a slow start in making tests available to health providers, the country is quickly getting ahead of the curve on that with no material, detrimental public health effects. This is an important fact to pay attention to if you want to reduce panic. It’s also one to ignore, if you want to create panic.
The point is, the U.S. is not the same as China or Italy, and while the disease may not change as it crosses international borders, the way in which countries learn and respond does change. For that reason alone, there is no reason to assume that what happened in Rome or Wuhan will happen where you live.
#5 – Turn off the cable news, take a break from social media, quit looking at the stock market.
The last tip is probably the most important one, because it’s all about the sources of panic.
Because cable news exists to be watched, it will fill the time between actual news happening with filler. And by filler, I mean non-stop speculation, fear-mongering and even the politicization of the situation.
Their goal is to get you scared, to get you angry, to make you mad and afraid. If they do that, you will keep watching, and you will get more angry and more afraid, and you will keep watching.
The same is true on social media. People want you to click on their tweets and posts. They want you to share them. So, their goal, too, is to make you mad and afraid. Fear and anger drive amplification.
You can put a stop to this cycle simply by turning it off. Shut down the noise. Go about your life without watching fear-mongering cable news, without listening to angry radio hosts, without watching local TV news outlets pushing the “can it happen here” angle all day long, without looking at your smart phone for posts that seem designed to make you angry and provide no real information.
Be very selective in what information you consume, and how and when you consume it. Don’t let a preoccupation with the need for up-to-the-minute updates consume your life. Be skeptical of every source and learn how to separate real fact from sensationalist spin. If you need to get important updates, you can get them directly from the CDC via email.
I promise you that if you do these 5 things we’ve covered here for the next few weeks, you will feel much better, and those around you will feel better, thanks to you. You will experience something that may seem unrealistic now. You will have better perspective and you will be a calming force, not a source of panic for others.
All of this will end. The world will return to normal, not too long from now. And you will find that you did what was right at the time and it helped, and that fear and panic served no purpose.
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Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator who has handled situations involving life and death on behalf of his clients. The central concept of allaying a sense of panic is at the core of all crisis management. To discuss your thoughts, please feel free to get in touch at 412.854.8845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.