, 03.13.2020 08:15 AM

#Coronavirus: crisis comms in a crisis comms situation

Daisy Group has been around for almost 15 years.  Generally speaking, we are basically a war room for hire.  Specifically, we help folks through crisis communications situations.  Like coronavirus.

What has made things worse – what has made people anxious, and pushed them towards panic – isn’t the virus itself.  It’s how our supposed leaders have communicated to us about the virus.

Donald Trump has been in the news every day. He has ignored the threat, then dismissed it, then lied about it, then broadcast an address full of yet more lies and misinformation.  It caused a stock market crash and panicked people even more.

Justin Trudeau has done the opposite – he hasn’t been in the news much at all.  He has delegated communications to ministers who have zero experience handling a crisis like this, and his policy response – a billion dollars, a conference call with provincial Premiers – has been pretty puny.  He has essentially disappeared.  His wife may be ill, but Trudeau is a master of social media, and he knows how to reach people even when in isolation.  He hasn’t done so.  That’s caused some confusion and anxiety.

I teach crisis communications at the University of Calgary’s law school; I’m in fact teaching again today, via the Internet.  I have been using coronavirus as a case study for the entire semester.

Here is the story I will tell my students about how to communicate in a crisis like coronavirus.  It isn’t hard.  But our leaders need to do it.  Now.

At my Daisy Group, when corporate disaster strikes, we often refer clients to the Tylenol approach.  It’s an approach that works.  

Late 1982, Chicago: seven people are killed when they ingest Tylenols laced with potassium cyanide.  Johnson and Johnson, which owned the Tylenol brand, saw its share price plummet, and panic was widespread.

But the company didn’t disappear.  It did the reverse.  J and J immediately recalled all Tylenol, nation-wide. It ceased production.  It issued warnings to hospitals.  It announced that it was developing what it called “tamper proof” packaging – a phrase that has now entered the popular lexicon.  And, over and over, company executives made themselves available to the media, to answer questions, to describe the actions it was taking and – most of all – to take responsibility.

Johnson and Johnson didn’t poison its own Tylenol capsules, of course, and nobody believed that they ever would.  But the company’s willingness to be accountable, and to answer every question, generated tons of goodwill.  As the Washington Post wrote, admiringly, at the time:  “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”  After tamper-proof Tylenol packaging was perfected, and reintroduced in the market, Tylenol would shortly go on to become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic drug in the U.S.

For Messrs Trudeau and Trump, there’s a lesson there, if they want to heed it.  In politics, as in life, the communications rule is this: what gets you in trouble isn’t the mistake itself.

What gets you in trouble, instead, is dishonesty and exaggeration.  What gets you in trouble is pretending to be an expert, where you’re not. What gets you in trouble is basically disappearing (like Trudeau) – or being on TV too much (like Trump).

What gets you in trouble is pretending that the crisis isn’t happening.  And saying nothing.

Because coronavirus isn’t nothing.  It’s changing the world.  Right now, today.

Forever.

 

35 Comments

  1. Of course, the other obvious takeaway is where would tamper-proof packaging be but for this poisoning crisis? Exactly.

    • Dawn Mills says:

      Are you inferring that someone wanted tamper proof packaging to be the norm, and to accomplish that goal, they poisoned the pill bottles?

      That is sick.

      • Ronald O'Dowd says:

        Dawn,

        Nope. What I’m saying is but for the poisoning, industry had absolutely zero plans to take tamper-proof to the market. Too expensive and would have lowered profits. You know, capitalism without a heart, only truly interested in worshiping the almighty dollar…

        • Fred from BC says:

          Well, probably that and the fact that they didn’t actually have any compelling reason to do so previously.

          I had never heard of any ‘product tampering’ before that Tylenol incident.

  2. Steve T says:

    I wish the Canadian government would formally retract the ridiculous “stock up” comments.

    I went shopping last night for my usual weekly amount of groceries, and it was chaos. People are losing their f*ckin’ minds. Guess what folks – even if you aren’t stockpiling toilet paper, you are still a problem if you buy five 4L of milk, a dozen frozen pizzas, ten cans of beans, a flat of Lysol wipes, etc…

    Everyone needs to calm the hell down, and only buy what they need. We think we are such an enlightened society, but as soon as the first sign of trouble appears, we turn into George Costanza yelling “fire” at the kids’ birthday party.

    • joe long says:

      I stocked up with four weeks supply of goods. I make no apologies for this.

      I am over sixty and live by myself, If I get sick, the prevailing advice is for me to self quarantine for 14 days. If I didn’t stock up how would I eat during the quarantine?

      Why four weeks? I like many seniors have an underlying health condition that, health officials tell us, makes me more vulnerable to serious adverse affects from the corona virus. Four weeks supply let’s me reduce my trips to the grocery store over the coming months.

      If I was in my twenties, I’d set aside two weeks supply. Normally I have a one week supply.

      I would expect most Canadians to stock up on two weeks supply, so they too are able to quarantine.

      I suspect most Canadians will get the COVID virus. The vast majority will experience a mild illness. If I get it, and I probably will, then my duty to my fellow citizens is to avoid passing it on to other people. I accept that responsibility.

      A small percentage of the population will get the COVID virus and require hospitalization. A small percentage times a large population means our hospitals may be overrun with more very sick people than they can handle.

      So we as citizens should try to reduce the number of people who get very sick at any one time. Frequent hand washing, reducing exposure, reducing personal contacts etc. will spread out duration of the epidemic and reduce the hospital load.

      I, as a citizen, accept that responsibility.

  3. Quo Vadis says:

    Mob mentality and the medias ability and want to seduce the masses with a perpetual arrival of the next apocalypse.
    Every so often we have the “new threat” to humanity but always the looming end of the earth as we know it brought on by climate change.
    A rush to buy toilet paper now but watch the next time there is an asteroid “near” miss of the planet: there may be a rush on umbrellas.

  4. Joseph says:

    I disagree with the statement that the world is changing.
    It’s not, and the way the world is behaving demonstrates that it’s not.

    We will get through this.

  5. Steve says:

    One thing that Trump did well was limiting travel from China early on. Travel to and from “hot spots” for the disease needs to be curtailed, but for Trudeau to do that he would have to contradict his “welcome to Canada” tweet. Trudeau is also guilty of relying on empty platitudes and infantilizing Canadians with his “your government is hear for you” rubbish.

    No matter how you slice it, leadership on the North American continent has been sorely lacking; politicians playing politics at this time of extreme crisis could cost innocent civilians their health… or their lives.

    • Quo Vadis says:

      Exactly. It was the airline execs who had to stop the flights to China. Depending on how Canada deals with incoming foreign investors and all those using Canada as a gateway to the US we may see the US close the border with Canada (less perhaps commerce).

    • Fred from BC says:

      “One thing that Trump did well was limiting travel from China early on. ”

      To which the news media, Hollywood and the Democrats responded by screaming “RACIST!!” at him.

      I do agree, though, that Trump definitely doesn’t know when to shut up. Let the CDC, the NIH and the Surgeon General make the public statements…that’s *their* job, not his. Yes, I understand that he was just trying to reassure people and prevent mass panic, but still…

  6. Max says:

    The fact that sales of Corona beer have plummeted tells you all you need to know. For all their wealth, power and arrogance, the American’s are….. (insert your own word here.) ________.
    Perhaps they shoulda called it the “tobacco virus”? “The hot dogs and pop virus”? “The Bud Lite virus”? “The Hot Pockets Virus”? I dunno.

  7. Dawn Mills says:

    Can you catch COVID19 by catching farts?

    If you can Mike Pence must be Covid Mary.

  8. Chris Sigvaldason says:

    So far…

  9. Pipes says:

    I had the opportunity to witness the COSTCO toilet paper hysteria and could not, in a million years describe its brutality.

    The COVID-19 virus can bring the best and the worst out in people, but what I witnessed (pushing, shoving, yelling, shopping cart fighting, butting into the attempt to organize lines of shoppers etc) leaves me with the disappointing conclusion that we are no better than those Americans on a Black Friday midnight Walmart opening.

    I thought we were better than that and we are not. My conclusion is to pay attention to the Government’s suggestions on emergency supplies and planning, because Canadians will kill you over a roll of ass wipe.
    We should be ashamed.

    If I were a journalist or a person with some eloquence, I would love to write and article or an op-ed about this. Anyway…….

    Boy Scouts Motto- BE PREPARED!

    • Steve Teller says:

      That’s the problem – people interpret “be prepared” with “be prepared for the apocalypse”. We seem to have lost our sense of proportionality.

      My theory is that we are too many generations removed from true hardship. We have been conditioned to expect whatever we want, whenever we want it. If that is threatened, it’s every man and woman for themselves.

      If we experienced a bit more regular hardship, we might realize how this ranks in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps also realize how to adjust to changing circumstances.

      • Fred from BC says:

        I remember having met some older European women who seemed to hoard food (every single cupboard and spare space crammed with food). I didn’t understand this, so I asked finally asked one why.

        You’re right…you have to have gone through it to understand. The older generation knows a few things we don’t…

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Pipes,

      The most rapidly diminishing gemstone in our societal tapestry is called manners and a powerful, automatic sense of collective well-being. With each passing decade, it only gets worse…far too many no-class individualists out there. Them and their two closest friends are: ME, myself and I.

  10. Fred Pertanson says:

    Seriously? I agree with Warren on this. We STILL have 5 planes coming from China to Vancouver every day. Why?

    • Terence says:

      More new cases in China are arising from in-bound travel now than from within China. The centre of the problem is now in Europe where numbers are growing. Cases are dropping in China. Canada has relatively few cases per capita compared to other wealthy countries. For example Denmark, a country of only 5 million has over 800 cases.

      • Terence says:

        That being said, I do think the country should block flights from ALL countries for 30 days. Harsh? No. We need to get and stay ahead of it.

        • Fred from BC says:

          “That being said, I do think the country should block flights from ALL countries for 30 days.”

          That would seem like the practical application of good old common sense, wouldn’t it? Get it under some control, figure out some screening methods and some quarantining options then reopen the airports once you have a reasonable chance of maintaining that control.

          This has never happened before, to this extent. No one was ready.

  11. Gord says:

    Another masterclass in crisis management was how Maple Leaf handled the listeria outbreak in 2008.

  12. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Mnuchin is out of his mind. He’s promising unlimited liquidity which will only bankrupt the United States and destroy the already flailing confidence in both the Bond and Stock Markets. Absolute lunacy.

    Get your dough out of American banks as fast as you can, before they go under, because they will.

    • Robert White says:

      Mnuchin is irrationally exuberant given the job requirement post-Paulson era. Moreover, Trump was naïve enough to base his success on the Dow Jones Industrial Average asset inflation era that recently passed.

      Max Kaiser said that one cannot re-inflate a Ponzi scheme post-Lehman debacle. They jailed Bernie Madoff because they had the space. Jailing all the marquee bank holding companies would be costly.

      Too-BIG-to-fail banks are not permitted to go under. The IMF & World Bank will re-set the financial system with electronic money & blockchain tech. Special drawing rights in a basket of currencies will be the way forward.

      RW

    • Yet another Calgarian says:

      Much like 2008 a good chunk of that cash is going to go to European banks which on average are still twice as leveraged as US banks are.

      Watch the Italian and Spanish banks over the next couple of months. They have a chance to make the Greek system look like small potatos in terms of needed bailouts.

  13. jsa says:

    With Bill “G20” Blair serving as Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness there’s really nothing to worry about. No really…

  14. Lawrence Barry says:

    For all the hand wringing being done over Airport Screening Procedures for international travelers coming from “a place of concern” vs. not from a place of concern there is an easy answer to that – close all international flights immediately. There – that question is answered. And for those of you that will say ‘ you can’t do that’ / ‘that’s unreasonable ‘ / ‘not practical ‘ – I would say I agree – but I don’t care. These are extraordinary times and this issue demands extraordinary measures. You folks in Ottawa – get your shit together and do it fast.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Lawrence,

      But to be consistent in reducing or eliminating COVID-19 exposure, you would have to also cancel all domestic air traffic — not to mention trains, buses and ships.

      • Lawrence Barry says:

        I disagree- the last few days it would have been critical to to cancel international flights to try to slow this shitstorm – but that horse has left the barn. As for all domestic – that will be cancelled soon enough. Stay safe everyone.

  15. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    WOW!

    It’s all over for US Commercial Banks: in three words, Reserve Requirement Ratios — now at 0. Absolutely insures a run on the banks followed by inevitable negative interest rates.

    I sure hope you got your American dollars on US deposit out in time.

  16. Lawrence Barry says:

    Speaking of people in Ottawa that need to get their shit together – where is Patty Hajdu? Dr. Theresa Tam has been front and center throughout this crisis. Out here in BC – Dr. Bonnie Henry likewise , along with Health Minister Adrian Dix. Every day grinding it out in difficult circumstances. Hajdu? It’s like she’s awol? Gonna have to stick her mug on a milk carton.I doubt our previous Minister of Health could have lowered herself to this level of ” competence”

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Lawrence,

      The PMO has chosen to handle it this way, leaving the heavy lifting to doctors and scientists. But I agree, when the impression that ministerial responsibility has gone AWOL is left out there, that’s definitely not good. Proactive is always infinitely better than reactive. Goes for the PM as well.

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