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Businesses & Nonprofits Must Plan Now for Coronavirus Outbreak

By Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications


In the face of a coronavirus pandemic, prudent business and nonprofit leaders
should be using “peace time” to prepare for the worst.

Animal viruses that jump species can and often do change or mutate, presenting challenges to doctors and researchers.  In rapidly developing situations, reporters demand simple and definitive answers, even in situations – such as the global coronavirus outbreak – where  simple and definitive answers don’t yet exist.  Bloggers with political agendas may naively or purposely report fact as fiction and vice-versa as well.

On the web anyone can be a “reporter” with the ability to publish immediately and without the traditional safety net of editors, fact-checkers and other traditional media gatekeepers. Consider also the pressure on traditional media of balancing the mandate to report immediately versus The need to report accurately. Given those factors, the emerging coronavirus provides another fertile field for confusion with consequences.

The Spanish Flu killed some 50 to 100 million people worldwide in 1918-19, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.  The 2003 SARS outbreak never reached pandemic level, but caused 774 deaths in 17 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The 2009 Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak featured high rates of human-to-human transmission, yet was thought to have been less lethal than originally feared, with 18,449 confirmed deaths.  The Centers for Disease Control has since estimated the global death toll at 284,000 – 15 times those confirmed cases.

All these examples should serve as cautionary tales for how we approach and talk about this latest potential pandemic.

I reached out to Dr. Peter Sandman, perhaps the United States’ preeminent risk communication speaker and consultant.  Here’s what Dr. Sandman told me:

  • The key lesson here: The word “pandemic” means an infectious disease has spread to lots of people in lots of places.  To be a pandemic, an outbreak has to be widespread and intense.  It doesn’t have to be severe.  1918 was.  2009 wasn’t – at least in comparison.
  • Medical experts are pretty sure coronavirus will become a pandemic.  They don’t yet know how severe it will be, though many are guessing it will be closer to 2009 than to 1918.  Even a mild pandemic results in a shocking number of deaths – a small percentage of a large population number is still a huge number of victims.  And a mild pandemic can certainly be disruptive: Hospital overcrowding, absenteeism, supply chain problems, etc.
  • But if it’s mild and stays mild, it won’t be catastrophic.
  • The four main containment tools are patient isolation, contact tracing and monitoring, quarantines, and travel restrictions.  Quarantines now appear likely in the hope it will buy more time to prepare medically, logistically and emotionally. However, none of the four, separately or together, can stop a pandemic.
  • The risk communication lesson now: Stop telling people that containment will “work.”  If the coronavirus becomes a pandemic, as noted immunologist  Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and many other experts expect, eventually could spread widely in the U.S. as well, and containment won’t be feasible.

In the face of this uncertainty and volatility, prudent business owners and nonprofit managers, should be using “peace time” to prepare for the worst.

Now is the time to:

  • Examine your sick-leave policies.  Family-leave policies, too, should be reviewed because many employees may unilaterally decide to hunker down at home, especially if they have small children or elderly relatives to care for.
  • Encourage and utilize good hygiene practices (e.g. hand-washing, coughing into the crook of the elbow instead of the hand).
  • Consider what a travel ban might do to your business.  How can you prepare today to stay in business and serve customers and clients if a quarantine prohibits your staff from coming to work for weeks or longer?
  • Remind your employees, other stakeholders – and yourself – that Facebook is not a reliable source of information and the advice given by cable TV pundits must be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt. You must beware of those who are already trying to cause chaos with false and misleading social media posts. The World Health Organization, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health boards are reliable.
  • Remember to remind all of your stakeholders that situations like this are fluid and that the information given out now may be preliminary and subject to change. Even advice from the CDC and WHO can and probably will change, depending on the facts at hand.
  • Employees, customers, and other stakeholders will check what you tell them against other sources.  If you mislead them, they’ll hold it against you.  Be especially careful not to sound over-reassuring or overconfident, which Sandman says are the two most common crisis risk communication mistakes other than outright dishonesty.
  • Social service agencies should use this time to determine what they need to serve the needs of their employees, members, clients and other stakeholders in the event of a prolonged quarantine.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted an excellent guide for businesses, which can be accessed here:
  • Accept the fact that government does not have the power to keep the virus from our doors.

Dr. Sandman and his wife, Dr. Jody Lanard, offer additional suggestions for businesses and nonprofit agencies that include:

If you need assistance putting together a proactive crisis or risk communications plan for your organization, contact Hennes Communications at 216-321-7774.

Bruce Hennes is CEO of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and communications.

A shorter version of this article recently ran in Crain’s Cleveland Business.  A similar article ran in the National Law Review.


Photo Credit:  Unsplash –

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