The only thing spreading faster than the coronavirus is “information” about the virus.
Every network and news source devotes endless hours to reporting on virtually all aspects of the coronavirus, including its spread, characteristics, prevention techniques, origin, economic impact and on and on and on. Few among us are now ignorant of the proper handwashing technique, and it’s likely “Happy Birthday” has been sung more in the past few weeks than it had been sung in the past few years.
Every person connected to the internet is reporting on the pandemic, passing along an unfiltered stream of facts and factoids, rumors, anecdotes, chain letters, prayers, inducements and outright falsehoods. Some of us listen selectively and absorb information that confirms our biases, which might not be optimal, but conceivably is better than accepting everything at face value until your head explodes.
One of the challenges we face as communicators lies in finding the most effective way to communicate about risk and the uncertain future we face. Roughly 20 years ago Peter Sandman and Vince Covello collaborated on some fascinating work that examined how people view risk. Their 2001 article “Risk communication: Evolution and Revolution” is a useful read for communications professionals at this time.
The work was widely used in environmental communication, but has far broader applicability. They posit that people perceive risk not simply in terms of the actual potential for real harm, but also in terms of an emotional response that they termed “outrage.” Outrage is a combination of fear and anger, and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on the fear aspect which now dominates our national conversation about the coronavirus.
Sandman and Covello identified a number of “outrage” factors. I’ve selected several to examine in the context of how they affect our perception of our current risk.
Voluntariness: Risks from activities considered to be involuntary or imposed (e.g., exposure to chemicals or radiation from a waste or industrial facility) are judged to be greater, and are therefore less readily accepted, than risks from activities that are seen to be voluntary (e.g,. smoking, sunbathing, or mountain climbing). Clearly, the coronavirus is involuntary.
Controllability: Risks from activities viewed as under the control of others (e.g., releases of toxic chemicals by industrial facilities) are judged to be greater, and are less readily accepted, than those from activities that appear to be under the control of the individual (e.g., driving an automobile or riding a bicycle). As individuals, we cannot control the spread of the virus, although we can strive to influence it.
Familiarity: Risks from activities viewed as unfamiliar (such as from leaks of chemicals, or radiation from waste disposal sites) are judged to be greater than risks from activities viewed as familiar (such as household work). For most of us, the coronavirus did not exist until a few months ago. It is not familiar.
Benefits: Risks from activities that seem to have unclear, questionable, or diffused personal or economic benefits (e.g., waste disposal facilities) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that have clear benefits (jobs, monetary benefits, automobile driving). For nearly all of us, it’s hard to see what the benefits are at the moment.
Catastrophic potential: Risks from activities viewed as having the potential to cause a significant number of deaths and injuries grouped in time and space (e.g., deaths and injuries resulting from a major industrial explosion) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that cause deaths and injuries in scattered groups or random in time and space (e.g., automobile accidents). There’s clearly a certain randomness to the spread of the virus, Wuhan, northern Italy, Spain, and New York show us there is potential for a significant number of deaths in a very short time.
Uncertainty: Risks from activities that are relatively unknown or that pose highly uncertain risks (e.g., risks from biotechnology and genetic engineering) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that appear to be relatively well known to science (e.g., actuarial risk data related to automobile accidents). Arguably, the possibility that the virus crossed over from animal species in a Wuhan market causes coronavirus to be viewed as highly uncertain by lay people.
Media attention: Risks from activities that receive considerable media coverage (e.g., accidents and leaks at nuclear power plants) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that receive little (e.g., on-the-job accidents). As noted above, we are clearly not suffering from lack of media attention to coronavirus.
Dread: Risks from activities that evoke fear, terror, or anxiety (e.g., exposure to cancer-causing agents; AIDS) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that do not arouse such feelings or emotions (e.g., common colds and household accidents).Thanks in part to the media coverage, coupled with misinformation and human nature, it’s fair to say many people dread the virus.
Personal stake: Risks from activities viewed by people to place them (or their families) personally and directly at risk (e.g., living near a waste disposal site) are judged to be greater than risks from activities that appear to pose no direct or personal threat (e.g., disposal of waste in remote areas). This is personal—stay home, protect your loved ones, six feet of distance—very personal.
So now that we know the landscape, the question becomes, how does one effectively communicate against a background of fear and uncertainty? Here are a few suggestions:
- Understand your audience.
Accept their fear. What do they need to know? What are their capabilities? Know they are looking for guidance and direction.
- Choose the right spokesperson.
In times of uncertainty, people respond to individuals who project authority and knowledge and are appropriately credentialed to speak to specific topics. There is a reason Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH has emerged as a superstar when communicating about coronavirus.
- Be open about what you know and don’t know.
Preserving your credibility is critical. Speak to what you are doing to learn more about that which you do not know. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has been doing an excellent job in his briefings about being transparent about what he currently knows, and what further information is needed.
- Where you can, offer people actions they can take.
We all want to do something that we see as useful or beneficial. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has become one of the leading voices during this crisis by outlining specific steps citizens and businesses can take to meet ever-changing state guidance.
As you communicate you will get feedback. Let it help shape future communication. Accept constructive criticism to improve.
- Make sure your actions are aligned with your words.
If you want to engender trust (and you do), you have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
Tom Davis is a vice president with Susan Davis International. A version of this article first ran on its blog.