Advice from a crisis management expert on how to defuse coronavirus panic

Scary times call for decisive measures.
Scary times call for decisive measures.
Image: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski/File Photo
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The whole world could use a talented crisis manager right about now.

Covid-19, as the disease caused by the new coronavirus is known, is spreading rapidly around the planet. Government officials are testing positive for—and even in some cases dying of—the disease. People are hoarding medical supplies like masks and surgical gloves, depriving frontline health workers. Panic seems to be spreading faster than the disease itself.

Those whose daily job it is to manage crises have some fundamental tips that could help.

Eliot Hoff, head of APCO Worldwide’s Global Crisis Practice, is dealing with a coronavirus-related emergency of his own: His kids are quarantined at home because there have been cases of Covid-19 at their school. He says that, in any crisis, there are broad principles that can apply to any company, government, or institution.

What to do during a crisis

Hoff outlines three general crisis principles: Get the facts, communicate them responsibly, and know your audience.

The first thing to do in an emergency is to “understand the facts of the situation.” While our instinct may be to panic and respond, Hoff says that “the number one thing not to do is communicate when you are unsure of the information. In the case of any health emergency, facts are paramount.”

Poor communication can cause confusion and breed fear and misinformation, both of which tend to exacerbate crises. For example, during a news conference at the CDC last week, US president Donald Trump said that tests to detect coronavirus were widely available—even though doctors and local officials later said they’re actually in dire need of more tests.

Once you have the facts, it’s equally important to deliver them responsibly and effectively. Hoff argues that institutions like the World Health Organization or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “are generally doing a good job of putting information out there” on coronavirus, but that “where it’s getting lost in translation in some cases is when that’s communicated through…elected officials.”

In Italy, details of a plan to quarantine more than 16 million people in the northern region of Lombardy were leaked, causing residents to flee. In the US, representative Matt Gaetz gave a speech in the House of Representatives while wearing a gas mask.

In a crisis, knowing what to communicate and how is crucial, but so is knowing the audience. Information “needs to be made relevant to the stakeholders that you’re communicating to,” Hoff said. “What’s being communicated in a city like New York, where everyone is on public transportation, and there’s a lot of density, is very different from how a municipality needs to communicate in a small town in Italy, for example.”

What to do after a crisis

The most important piece of advice Hoff says he gives his clients is to start strategizing immediately for once the crises subsides. Both companies and governments should be planning for how to rebuild their systems and their output, while being careful not to allow the virus to re-emerge in the process. Companies that have shifted their entire workforce online need to plan a smooth transition back to the office for workers. Governments who have placed cities on lockdown need to figure out how and when to let people resume their normal lives.

It’s important to look ahead, he says, and remember a fundamental lesson of this field: “There will be an end to this, as there is with every crisis.”