How PR Can Respond to the Coronavirus Contagion

The coronavirus has infected thousands and killed hundreds in China and it continues to spread to other countries. Healthcare organizations worldwide are working hard to treat patients, learn about the virus and quickly disseminate accurate information.

The global health emergency has disrupted operations of travel industry companies and brands with international operations. It has impacted higher education institutions that enroll Chinese students. Many U.S. businesses including Apple and Starbucks have closed their outlets in China. Airlines have suspended flights to and from China. Passengers returning from China who may have been exposed to the virus are being tested. Those with signs of infection or exposure to the virus are being quarantined.

Not surprisingly, fear and misinformation have spread on social media. At the forefront of distributing information to the public and employees are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations along with corporate communications professionals. Even domestic organizations who now feel far removed from coronavirus may soon find themselves communicating healthcare and travel information.

On Employees’ Minds

“Even if companies don’t think they’re directly affected by coronavirus, the disease making national headlines is probably on their employees’ minds,” writes Rum Ekhtiar, founder and partner of Rum & Co, in PR Daily. “Business travelers, commuters and those who work in close quarters may have heightened concerns about their safety.”

Basics of corporate response to the coronavirus threat at this time are: Consider making travel optional, increase employee access to sanitizing and antibacterial cleaning products, and cite only reliable sources in company communications. Inform employees about the level of risk as the epidemic spreads.

A Communications Action Plan for Coronavirus

PR executives surveyed by Campaign emphasize the need for frequent, transparent and accurate communications. Keep the messages simple and factual to avoid any unnecessary panic, and reference only information from government or health organizations. They also say:

Be informed and ready to act. Continuously monitor the media and regularly engage with internal and external stakeholders to stay abreast of the situation and to be prepared to act swiftly. Assemble a preliminary crisis plan based on recommendations of public health organizations in anticipation that the spread of the disease reaches any part of your organization.

Emphasize employee safety. Place a priority on employee safety. Keep tabs on employee travel plans. Consider allowing remote or telecommuting work arrangements.

Boost CSR. Increase corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities by contributing to social causes. At least a few brands have donated millions of dollars to the Red Cross working in China.

Counter misinformation and fake news. “We are in an era of information overload and fake news, which makes it all the more important for companies to position themselves as a credible source of information that their staff can rely on,” Antoine Calendrier, head of reputation, North Asia, Edelman Asia Pacific, told Campaign.

The Ebola Comparison

The coronavirus outbreak brings back memories of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Dallas, says Daniel Keeney, founder and president of DPK Public Relations. Some of the same healthcare management and communications mistakes committed in 2014 are being repeated in the coronavirus situation. Drawing on an analysis of the Ebola crisis by Kathleen Lewton, principle with Lewton, Seekins & Trester LLC, Keeney offers these recommendations:

Know the facts before you speak. Early in both the Ebola and coronavirus outbreaks, health experts knew very little about the disease and how they spread. As the coronavirus started spreading, political leaders, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee and President Trump, issued unrealistically positive public statements. Even now, it’s not known how easily or rapidly the virus spreads, partly because information from China is unreliable. Organizations affected by the handful of coronavirus cases in the U.S. are employing strict measures to prevent spread from the infected patients.

Don’t be pressured into releasing information. The media’s appetite for information is insatiable. Don’t allow journalists’ complaints about lack of transparency pressure you into releasing information you’ll later regret. Focus on responding to and correcting inaccurate statements on Twitter and other social channels rather than worrying if a journalist feels slighted.

Communicating is critical but is no substitute for training. Staff members at hospitals admitting the first Ebola patients were not trained in fundamental aspects of Ebola patient care. Since the Ebola outbreak, U.S. hospitals have implemented more training in dealing with patients with infectious disease. Businesses, too, must offer training to employees in risk prevention, including frequent and thorough hand-washing. It also helps prevent the common flu.

Bottom Line: The coronavirus has become both a public health and a PR issue. Businesses and organizations in a range of affected industries are following the recommendations of public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control to provide timely and accurate information, dispel misinformation, protect their employees, and make thoughtful business decisions to prevent further spread of the illness.

This article was first published on the blog.

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