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The Coronavirus Saga Is Just Beginning – LEVICK
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The Coronavirus Saga is Just Beginning

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Want to know how eager people are for reliable information about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and how the epidemic could affect their families, communities, and organizations?

Take a minute to read this story, then take a few seconds to examine the VIX (volatility index) chart below. Financial analysts refer to the VIX as the “fear gauge” – not surprisingly, in recent days it’s been the inverse of the financial markets, soaring straight up as the Dow and all the rest have been plummeting straight down.

On Monday, February 17, my good friend Fay Shapiro, the editor of CommPRO, the industry trade journal that reaches over 200,000 communications professionals across the globe, asked if I would write a column for later that week on the communications repercussions of an epidemic that had the potential to become a pandemic. I immediately contacted our colleagues at Turbine Labs, who have been analyzing COVID-19’s media coverage and market volatility since its outbreak.

Turbine Labs’ AI-intelligence platform showed that not only had earned media volume on COVID-19 increased significantly in the first weeks of February, but that the global media had begun using more emotion-laden terms to describe market reaction. Leigh Fatzinger, Turbine’s founder and CEO, gave us this quote for the column that ran on Thursday, February 20:

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

Leigh’s comment looks prescient now, but we had no way of knowing on February 20 just how much “dramatic content” would unfold over the next week: a sharp increase in the virus’ global death toll; the epidemic spreading to new countries; social media exploding; Japan closing its schools for a month; rising fears that Germany could be entering a recession; projections that the virus may wipe out corporate growth in 2020, perhaps completely; an unexposed person in California suddenly coming down with the disease, et al.

And above all, an administration contradicting its own experts, alleging conspiracy when what is needed is leadership, confusing and scaring people, and sending financial markets into a tizzy.

When Fay told us on Monday, February 24, how many thousands of communications professionals were clicking on our column – with more being added by the minute – we knew that the markets would be in for a rough ride. Decision-makers in C-suites all over the world were clearly desperate for information they could trust and worried they weren’t getting what they needed.

The fact that the people around the world don’t trust information they get from their governments is not exactly news – the Edelman Trust Barometer has been hemorrhaging for years. The fact that Americans don’t trust the information they’re getting from the current administration is very big – and very disquieting – news. By the time our column had been posted for a week, it was CommPRO’s most-read column of 2020 – not because it contained brilliant insights (trust me, it didn’t) but because it satisfied a need.

Indeed, this whole episode reinforces some basic tenets of crisis communications.

  1. Provide a port in the storm. In a chaotic environment, your constituents will turn to things that appear credible and trustworthy.
  2. Keep it simple. We didn’t put forth any fancy recommendations. We just urged organizations to be straightforward, transparent, put the protection of their people ahead of profits, and use simple language to communicate with their key constituents and the public.
  3. Rely on scientific experts. People wearing white lab coats and “Dr.” at the beginning of their name should be front and center on any health-related crisis – especially an epidemic. It’s why the single best thing in our column was the link to epidemiology and health specialists. It’s Health Crisis 101. But it’s a lesson this White House doesn’t seem to know.
  4. Provide fresh data. The update media/market analysis from Turbine Labs rooted the piece in empirical data, which could at least inform an organization’s deliberations and actions.

The spread of the virus appears inevitable, though there are some early signs as we go to press that there may be a decline in new cases out of China. How big and how widespread this becomes is anybody’s guess. But it is certainly an unexpected crisis at a time when the United States and many other nations – authoritarian and democratic — are unprepared.

Organizations can’t wish it away. They need to redouble their efforts to be open, transparent, and responsive, to get credible information and smart 1-2-3’s out to their key audiences, etc. As documented by the VIX, organizations need to understand that people are now scared – and they’re likely to stay that way for a while. During the first few days of the market decline, many financial professionals saw the share price drop as an opportunity. Now they are not so sure.

This is all about trust. The White House is flunking its trust test – at least so far. Organizations cannot afford to stumble down that path.

Normally I say “Happy Reading” at the end of these things. But that seems a little flip under the circumstances.

How about “Stay calm and follow the sound health advice.”

Richard Levick

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