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Crisis communications: managing the next pandemic

Whether responding to the Ebola outbreak or the next unknown health threat, your organisation must be prepared to communicate effectively and quickly

 Are you ready - criris communications plan

In the UK and the US, fears of Ebola have ebbed slightly, as British and American citizens traveling from affected areas have made their way through quarantine and nearly all of the few infected Westerners have recovered from the disease. But the 2014 outbreak is far from over. It still affects several West African countries, causing more than 5,000 deaths to date.

The United Nations also announced on December 1 that the World Health Organization (WHO) target of reaching 70% of patients on treatment in affected countries was not met, while the goal for safe burial was met in the three target countries. There has been a call across organisations for more effort and funding to stem the spread of Ebola. The seriousness of the outbreak continues to garner broad-scale public awareness, prompting a group of musical celebrities to record another version of Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' as a fundraiser for Ebola relief efforts. Organisations of all kinds — not just those sending medical teams to Africa or providing healthcare services to travellers — must prepare to communicate clearly and quickly about the risks and realities of Ebola or the next unknown threat, both to help prevent it from further spreading and to prevent the pandemic from damaging their business.

It's easy to see why health authorities, medical relief charities and travel businesses would need crisis communication plans specifically focused on Ebola and other major pandemics. But any organisation may find itself affected by a disease: travel disruptions or quarantines may affect a company's ability to import supplies or conduct business across borders, customers or employees may live or have family members in cities where patients are being brought for treatment, or individual employees may decide to volunteer with relief efforts. Global pharmaceutical companies fit this profile clearly. Therefore, a clear issues response plan is essential for your organisation to react effectively to a pandemic, and can play a key role in ensuring that the challenges your company faces as the issue unfolds and during any eventual crisis do not harm your public image.

Developing a readiness plan

The cornerstone of any successful issues readiness plan is comprehensive, well-coordinated and well-executed communications. In the face of a global crisis such as Ebola, a pandemic communications plan helps you establish leadership and credibility among employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders. Such a plan enables you to communicate clearly and accurately about the risks facing your organisation; to raise awareness of the most important issues related to your business or industry during the crisis; to clarify individual and group roles and responsibilities; and perhaps most important, to ease fears and replace speculation and anxiety with calm and understanding. Silence or a slow response on these issues may lead to greater confusion, as people fill the information gap with rumours and false claims that may increase concern which can lead to hysteria and even to real harm — for example, scapegoating people from African countries who are currently living in Europe or other countries far removed from the outbreak.

When preparing for a pandemic, your organisation should bring together senior strategists from key departments, such as human resources, legal, public affairs, public relations and operations, to discuss the issue and understand the role your organisation may play in spreading and/or controlling the pandemic. One of the first tasks is to assess the organisation's specific needs and state of readiness. Do you conduct business in affected regions? Where do your executives travel most often? Do you conduct training or fundraising for aid organisations or crisis responders involved in the outbreak? What risks do your employees, business partners or their dependents face? With substantive information in hand, your organisation can make a plan for anticipating, reacting and responding to the specific threats you are most likely to face.

You will also want to ensure that you are drawing on the most authoritative, clear guidance from the relevant experts. Up-to-date information from the WHO, the NHS and Public Health England in the UK, the US Centers for Disease Control, and other appropriate national or regional health authorities can help you combat misinformation and ensure your organisation is following guidelines from experts dealing directly with the issue.

The Crisis Loop

It's easy to assume that a crisis simply erupts from nowhere and proceeds chaotically, but in fact a crisis typically unfolds according to the Crisis Loop: three successive stages of volatility, clarification and recovery. By understanding the predictable cycle of a crisis, your organisation can anticipate the kinds of problems and challenges that may arise.

  • Volatility. This is the initial period of a crisis, characterised by confusion, speculation and fear. At the start of a pandemic, you will need to communicate to a wide range of audiences, including but not limited to healthy but panicked employees, the families of employees, investors, customers, partners and the media. At the same time, you must coordinate with health and government agencies as you gather facts and information that will help shape your response.
  • Clarification. When the initial shock and fear have faded, the next period offers an opportunity to create greater understanding and clarity. In addition to addressing immediate issues such as the health and safety of your employees, you will need to reassure stakeholders about your organisation's ability to carry on operations, your financial stability and your ongoing management of the situation as it relates to your organisation.
  • Recovery. As the immediate crisis eases and people return to normal daily routines, it is still important for your organisation to communicate clearly with employees, stakeholders and the public. This is especially important during a pandemic such as the current Ebola outbreak, which is not yet fully contained. Now is the time to review the success of your communications efforts and prepare for issues that may arise if the disease spreads and the volatility period returns in a repeat of the Crisis Loop.

Through all phases of the cycle, a crisis plan must make clear what everyone can do to help relieve the situation. In the case of the latest Ebola outbreak, this includes clear guidance about how to prevent the spread of infection and protect individuals and the organisation from harm, but also how to donate time or money to relief efforts. Information about how to make a difference may be particularly reassuring to those who are at little risk of exposure to the disease, because they may feel powerless or uncertain in the absence of a clear and immediate danger to themselves. By telling your audiences how they can contribute to a good outcome, even in a small way, you can help defuse panic and fear, and instead instil a sense of positive engagement, while potentially helping control the spread of a dangerous disease.

A truly effective pandemic issues communication plan requires an understanding of the specific threat to your organisation and a solid commitment to frequent and honest communication — and, most important, careful advance planning. The sooner you begin to prepare for the next pandemic, the better position your organisation will be in when the crisis strikes.

Article by
Anna Gray

vice president of Healthcare UK, Waggener Edstrom Communications

8th December 2014

From: Marketing, Healthcare

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