Tips on communicating the uncertainty of coronavirus without creating panic

Tips on communicating the uncertainty of coronavirus without creating panic

Futureye Managing Director Katherine Teh explains.

The global death toll from coronavirus has topped 3100, with more than 91000 reported cases in 77 countries (WHO, 3 March). 

The hazard ‘containment’ response has been swift as countries across the globe along with the World Health Organisation (WHO) seek to contain the spread of the virus and limit its health impacts.  This reflects the degree of uncertainty that comes with a new virus and the fear that this brings.

We now are facing the situation that while containment has slowed the virus, we should be prepared for it to be “here” in the community and understand what managing that means.

In recent days we have seen shoppers clear the shelves of supermarkets of toilet paper, hand sanitizers, masks and other everyday necessities.  Some see this as panic buying although preparing for the unknown could and perhaps should be seen as a precautionary action.  What we are dealing with here is an individual’s intuitive response to a relatively unknown risk and one they want to feel personally prepared for.  A new, unknown risk breeds more fear and people will respond in ways that may seem extraordinary to some, but very real and necessary to others.

There is of course much to be afraid of and much to feel afraid of. No-one has immunity. There are no vaccines or specific treatment yet available. Personal reaction to the risk becomes the next barrier of defence. Calling people out as ‘panic shoppers’ might look silly if the pandemic fizzles out, but not if it takes hold and spreads.  In the context of the threat that the virus poses, I would rather look silly than be unprepared.  

What does this mean for business leaders and communicators?

We know from practical experience and the advice of risk communication experts that trying to reassure the public that everything is under control breaks all the cardinal rules.  Similarly, pretending that there is no uncertainty in responding to and managing the virus will be called out as b/s.  Further, it is important to talk genuinely about the main implications of shifting from the containment to mitigation phase.  This means for many businesses talking about what this will mean for their workplace arrangements, absenteeism, business environment and disruption.

If you, your organisation or your company would like to better understand your communication options in the face of the uncertainty of the coronavirus to support your active engagement with your staff, clients or the community please talk to us at Futureye.  We are specialists in risk communications with 18+ years of experience.