PR pulse: Is coronavirus messaging generating irrational fear?

by | Feb 3, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

As the global tourism industry gears up for the inevitable coronavirus (2019-nCoV) contagion in new markets, it is worth noting that the outbreak poses industry risk well beyond the reality of the health hazards involved. The greater threat—the one that is driving elections, impacting industry and, in recent cases, decimating destinations—is our collective psychology of irrational fear.

Consider that, while the coronavirus is serious, it does not appear to be nearly as deadly as MERS with a 34 percent mortality rate or SARS with a 10 percent mortality rate. In fact, some scientists are warning that the greater concern this time of year should be the flu, which has killed 8,200 people and hospitalized 140,000 during this flu season alone, according to the CDC.

But why let facts and common sense stop a good social media-driven panic at this point?

In today’s information cycle, it has never been more true that perception outplays reality. And no one—sadly—is going to compel the masses by sharing scientific data points when alarm draws more attention.

For this reason, travel companies would be wise to align communications to traveler perceptions of the outbreak beyond just the facts of the situation. It is one thing to tell travelers in most of the Western world that they have little to worry about. It is another to do so when speaking to a population awash in ongoing cycles of click-bait headlines and misinformation.

Media outlets regularly refer to the disease as a “never-before-seen strain” and a “mysterious new coronavirus,” which are true but lack the context that the common cold is also a coronavirus. Venerable outlets like the New York Times run alarmist headlines such as ‘What if We All Get Sick?’

Social media channels are scrambling to stop the spread of misinformation about the virus on their platforms

However, this is amounting to little more than a game of Whac-A-Mole. And the fact that the virus originated in China just compounds the issue. Unfounded rumors that the Chinese government started the virus, unverifiable user photos breaking through its internet firewall, and intentional fake news of a new hospital being built to treat the illness are all front and center online.

Which leaves the tourism industry with a question—how to communicate in an era of irrational fear?

For example, if we really are more afraid of shark attacks than driving a car (and studies show we are), is it effective to explain how comparatively dangerous driving is? Or should we focus on everything being done to prevent shark attacks? In this case, does it work to put the coronavirus in its appropriate context at this point in time? Or should we treat is as the public believes it to be—a disease that is likely to impact me personally at any moment?

Speaking for myself, I’m unwilling to walk away from the facts—cars are more dangerous than sharks and people should focus on not catching the flu before losing sleep today over the new coronavirus. Yet, if our job is to deliver messages in a way they are heard by all our stakeholders, that approach alone doesn’t work.

Increasingly, issue management in the tourism industry means communicating beyond the facts to address paranoia at the level it manifests. This means speaking to all the quality systems, protocols and procedures we will employ to address an illness, in a way that is outsized to the risk factors at hand. It means that sharing our capacity to respond to a possibility that doesn’t exist and may never manifest. It means meeting our stakeholders where they are, even if it is in a whirlwind of irrational fear.

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Laura Guitar and Lisa Ross

Laura Guitar is EVP + Partner, and Lisa Ross is President at Miami-based rbb Communications.

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