Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola ... a crisis communications primer.

It's absolutely fascinating to see how "fearbola" is gripping North America. In both Canada and the US, the divide between actual risk and the public's perception is of, well, continental proportion. Just look at this piece (actually scary ..) to judge for yourself.

But why is that? More people have died from the EV68 outbreak ... ICUs in many hospitals are overwhelmed with mostly kids affected by the particular virus ... and meanwhile, the media and the public is left in a state of high anxiety from fear of a disease that has much chance of spanning the next pandemic as I have of singing Il Paliacci at the Metropolitan Opera. 

Just think, thousands of people are going to die from the flu this winter ... and yet, no panic about that ... a sense of perspective is largely absent from the public debate.

So how can organizations bridge the gap? How can they conduct effective risk and crisis communications related to the ebola scare?

I'd humbly suggest that the answer lays in three main areas: 

  1. occupying the public space effectively
  2. addressing key concerns
  3. monitoring social networks and engaging
These three areas apply to all types of organizations trying to combat "fearbola":
  • hospitals
  • public health agencies
  • governments and emergency management agencies
For hospitals, the goals should be to: 
  • showcase preparedness ... demonstrate a solid front (involving doctors, nursing and other staff ... not an easy task because of labour relations/occupational safety issues) ... here's how one hospital did it in Canada ... small hospitals, those in smaller towns like Brockville or on Martha's Vineyard are usually pretty well connected to their community, so that engagement might come more easily.  But larger ones can still be successful: a hospital (Sibley Memorial in Washington DC) is using its Youtube channel to showcase it's preparations and how staff are protected:
  • have a public face ... someone to help audiences connect with ... doesn't have to be the CEO or president ... but maybe a respected virologist .. or a nurse ... or a combination ... ( a good question to ask: who's got the most solid "trust capital"?especially online ) it's critical because tough questions are being asked:

  • Be ready to respond to communications issues ... that means being prepared with the right crisis comms planning ... because if you're not ... and things go bad operationally and then on a comms perspective ... you might have to hire a PR agency ... and that could become a story in itself ... just ask the hospital executives in Dallas ...
  • And as important as anything else ... engage with your employees ... internal communications are a make or break aspect of your efforts ... there will be dissent (especially in an unionized environment ) but everyone in your organization should be aware of the strategic goals and some basic messages.

For public health agencies, the focus should be on: 

For government and emergency management agencies, the priorities should include:
  • reinforcing the message about preparedness ... from healthcare, public health and even from a broader perspective. This should be done at the municipal level .... at the state or provincial level ... and by federal governments in Canada and the US (and whether your appoint an "ebola czar" or not ...) ... that's very important, especially when dissenting voices arise (see this from Canadian nurses orgs)
  • using all government channels to amplify public health messaging 
  • monitoring social networks to identify gaps in the crisis comms and rumour management response
In other words, in the current "fearbola" outbreak ... focus should be on eradicating that particular form of mass hysteria.

Doing other things that differ from these key priorities might actually be detrimental. Experts might tell us that the public worry is over the top, but comms professionals cannot let anything get in the way of dispelling rumours and addressing the concerns of Canadians and Americans.

I just pray that Ebola does NOT turn out to be airborne ! (then a wholesale message reset will become necessary ...) 

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