As the world confronts the spread of the new Coronavirus, people seek greater clarity on the risks they can expect to face and how to best minimize them. They search for reliable information from trusted sources. The problem is a dearth of credible information due to inaccuracy in social media and politicization of the problem. The World Health Organization would like all people everywhere to know how to be safe in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Businesses can help. They can make a vital contribution to economic and social continuity by doing their best to maintain operations through uncertainty. They can help their valued employees and customers stay well-informed by providing access to reliable, science-based information that people can adapt to their own circumstances.
To enable businesses to contribute fully, Edelman has invited Dr. David Nabarro, a Special Envoy for the WHO on COVID-19, to help provide our clients and our employees with the most up-to-date information. In the past Dr. Nabarro managed Ebola and Avian Flu for the United Nations and is a specialist in public health. Edelman is also working with the World Economic Forum on a communications plan for 500 member companies. Klaus Schwab, its chairman and founder, is providing a weekly update to CEOs. The firm is helping WEF build a platform so that companies know what others are doing on travel, conferences and office closure.
Dr. Nabarro addressed Edelman’s staff and clients this week. Here are our highlights from his remarks:
- The Disease—The new Coronavirus (COVID-19) is not like influenza or SARS. The COVID-19 virus has only been known about for three months. As the WHO gets to know the virus and its disease better, it is updating its guidance on how outbreaks can best be contained. COVID-19 outbreaks develop quickly and with dramatic effect because the virus is easily transmitted; one person can infect up to three others (and in rare cases many more). The risk of transmission seems to be highest in unventilated locations. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease: The virus is spread by the microscopic droplets produced when coughing or sneezing. People can become infected if they are close to someone who has COVID-19; to avoid infection stay about two meters away. The symptoms at the start are high fever and cough, usually not a runny nose. Around 20 percent of those infected become severely ill, and between one and two percent will die. The most vulnerable are people over 65, as well as those with underlying ailments such as hypertension or diabetes. Children seem much less vulnerable.
- The Status—The COVID-19 outbreak in Hubei province, China, seems to be lessening, and outbreaks in other provinces in China are being contained. The Chinese government is being vigilant because it is always possible that they can restart. In the last two weeks there has been a steep rise in the number of people with COVID-19 outside of China. There are now outbreaks, with community transmission, in South Korea, Japan, Northern Italy and Iran. In the last 48 hours there have been reports of outbreaks in Kirkland, Washington (a suburb of Seattle).
- Fast Response Needed—Public health authorities must be ready to respond quickly to any person suspected of having the symptoms of COVID-19. Once infection is confirmed in an individual, he or she should be isolated promptly in order to prevent transmission to others. Care must be taken to identify those with whom the infected person has been in contact and to keep them under surveillance in case they turn out to be infected. There may be a decision to keep them quarantined while this surveillance takes place.
- China Has Done It Well—Once the severity of this new disease was evident to the government of China, a massive operation (involving the whole of government as well as communities and enterprises) was mounted, which has had extraordinary results. The outbreak of disease in Wuhan is being limited as a result of the involvement of organizations, with support from a massive community health workforce that checks on disease spread. Every effort is made to enable people with symptoms to get themselves checked and to access hospital care if needed. The Chinese government has repurposed health services, establishing dedicated treatment facilities for people with COVID-19 infection; this enables other hospitals to carry on with the everyday business ofmedical and surgical care for the population (including cancer care or treatment of injuries).
- Society Must Carry On—There is a key role for business in assuring stable supplies of food, access to energy, transportation services and commerce. Divisions between different levels of government, as well as political position-taking and point-scoring, can interfere with effective responses. All – businesses, civil society and government – have vital roles to play in keeping life going despite the virus.
- Business Should Connect Frequently with Employees and Communities—In some outbreaks the number of people who are newly infected seems to double every three days. This means that the global situation is evolving rapidly. New scientific studies of the disease are emerging all the time, and situation assessments, as well as guidance on optimal responses, are being updated every few days. That means companies must be prepared to adapt what they do in the light of changing circumstances and to update their key stakeholders regularly.
- Local Leadership Matters—As they learn about COVID-19, people everywhere have many questions and often wonder about the best sources of guidance. Both the WHO and the U.S. CDC are offering science-based assessments. However, the actual decisions about what should be done in the face of threats are best made locally. People have multiple concerns and seek authoritative information to help them make choices about what they should do in the home, community, residential institution, workplace, church, sporting events and so on. Companies can demonstrate that they care for their employees by enabling them to discuss such issues openly; this openness requires a major communications effort and it is generally best if the CEO is part of it, consistently. The CEO’s personal presence is vital to credibility. CEOs currently have more credibility than anyone in a company and therefore should be in contact with their employees at least two times a week for the coming months. They should provide helplines and other procedures for employees to make sure they feel attended to. Implement a no-regrets policy: if employees need to work from home or have flexibility, please let them do so. CEOs are among the most trusted people in the world. Their influence can have a great impact in combatting the spread of COVID-19.
- Travel and Events—People should be encouraged to follow the advice of the WHO as well as national health authorities. Decisions about attendance at conventions, travel to other cities and closure of offices* need to be advised by national circumstances. There is no blanket instruction on what to do about sporting events or conferences; each must be evaluated based on local, timely information about the risk of infection, the capacity of local health services and the position taken by local authorities. Try not to let closures bring business to a standstill but make care and safety of your employees paramount.
- Specific Request for Advertising Time—It may be especially helpful if all who work in PR could encourage clients to offer some of their paid advertising slots for transmitting public service announcements about how people can be safer in the face of COVID-19.
- Involve the People as Partners—The key lesson from countries that are successful in handling COVID-19 outbreaks is the need to share everything with the populace. Enlist them as partners in tackling the disease. Disinformation needs to be countered firmly by business, government and community organizations.
The greatest contribution all of us in PR can make in the coming weeks is to ensure that facts, not fiction, are the basis of decisions. The lessons of the Edelman Trust Barometer must come into play: “My Employer” is the most trusted institution and “My CEO” is expected to speak up on issues of the day. Here are six steps businesses can take to keep communications flowing:
- Get your CEO out in front communicating with employees and all relevant stakeholders
- Establish a cadence of frequent communications (preferably twice a week) with your employees and stakeholders to keep them updated on all relevant developments
- Correct misinformation immediately
- Create a platform that is routinely updated with pertinent information that may impact the lives of your employees and your company’s operation
- Set up a hotline that employees can call with any questions they may have surrounding the virus
- Communicate a no-regrets policy: if employees would prefer to work remotely or not travel, provide them that flexibility
This is a time for communicators to lead.
*Edelman has closed offices in Milan, Seoul, Seattle and four locations in China for a period.
Richard Edelman is CEO.
Dr. David Nabarro is the World Health Organization Special Envoy for COVID-19.
All information in this article was accurate at the time of posting.
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