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What Have We Learned from COVID-19?

As regular readers of this newsletter know, one of our regular correspondents is Peter M. Sandman, one of the world’s preeminent risk communications consultants.  Another way we describe him to our clients is that he is our go-to guy when it comes to risk communications.

Recently, Dr. Sandman was interviewed by Impact, a publication of the influential Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C. about the way the public and private sectors have responded to the pandemic — and what we have learned from the experience that should guide us in the future.  Here’s a transcript of that interview, done in a Q&A for mat.

You were talking about this as early as the first week of February, if not before. What were you observing then about the way the government and the private sector were preparing for or communicating about the pandemic that concerned you?

Although it looked early on like the virus would spread globally, it wasn’t obvious at first how severe the COVID-19 pandemic would be. So the right message would have been about preparedness, logistical and emotional, for the hard time that might be coming.

But experts and officials – even those who knew a severe pandemic was a distinct possibility – chose instead to reassure the public. Alas, to everyone’s subsequent dismay, they succeeded. Many leaders, including WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, said that fear or hysteria was worse than the virus. They were worried about public panic. So they validated the public’s complacency, and left us incredibly unprepared.

The “us” they left unprepared includes most corporate leaders, who paid far too much attention to official claims that the risk was low – and far too little attention to their own risk matrices. Nearly every company of significant size has taken enterprise risk management onboard, and nearly every enterprise risk management effort incorporates a probability-by-magnitude matrix to help management identify risks worth mitigating. Those matrices teach that a risk whose magnitude is devastatingly high deserves increasing amounts of preparedness effort as its estimated short-term probability rises from very low to low toward moderate.

And to a large extent public health officials bought into their own over-reassurances. They, too, failed to prepare, and failed to convince their political bosses to prepare.

All this came about when public trust in institutions – business as well as government – is at a low point. To what extent has this made pre-crisis planning and crisis communications difficult?

It is possible that low trust would have prevented the public from heeding warnings about a possibly severe COVID-19 pandemic to come. It’s hard to know, since there were so few such warnings.

Certainly low trust didn’t keep the public from heeding all those over-reassurances. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if more people had mistrusted all those officials who said “nothing for you to worry about” and prepared anyway!

I do think the public health establishment may have worried about a boy-who-cried-wolf mistrust problem. There have been a bunch of pandemic false alarms – most notably bird flu (the pandemic that didn’t happen) and swine flu (the pandemic that turned out milder than a typical flu season). It’s not so much that experts and officials were worried that their COVID-19 warnings might be mistrusted and therefore ignored. I suspect they were worried that COVID-19, too, might fizzle, and they’d be accused of alarmism yet again – and future warnings might be mistrusted. So they held their fire.

As for communications at the height of the pandemic crisis (so far), in mid-crisis the public tends to set aside any mistrust “for the duration” and follow instructions. So it’s not surprising that lockdown cooperation exceeded the expectations of the modelers. If anything, I think the majority of the public trusted the architects of lockdown too much.

Despite the survey evidence, I’m not convinced we’re in a period of low trust. I’d say it’s more polarized trust. Each side trusts its own leadership and its own media excessively, and misses or dismisses the other side’s share of the truth.

Did this take business by surprise?

Yes. But that’s not a fair question. A once-in-a-century black swan is supposed to take us by surprise. Of course a severe pandemic was on everybody’s list of low-probability high-magnitude risks that might eventually engulf us. But everybody also knew that the moment it did so would come as a surprise.

Maybe business should have done more long-term pandemic preparedness. But decades ago I was convinced by the late Aaron Wildavsky that preparing specifically for unlikely risks is a bad investment. There are too many unlikely risks; you usually find you wasted resources preparing for the wrong ones. Wildavsky understood that as an unlikely risk starts looking less unlikely, the case for just-in-time preparedness strengthens. Until then, he argued, both businesses and governments should build in more capacity for all-hazards resilience instead of trying to guess which unlikely disasters are going to materialize. Rather than asking how prepared companies were, maybe we should be asking how resilient they were.

But Wuhan in January was a real-world heads-up. A novel virus was already devastating a big city in a way the world hasn’t seen since the Spanish Flu, if then. Wuhan might have turned out to be a false alarm, of course, but it was certainly an alarm. It meant a severe pandemic was no longer a long-term low-probability risk, but now a short-term risk of middling probability. Wuhan should have been enough to get corporate risk managers and CEOs to dig out, update, and begin implementing their pandemic plans – in January or early February at the latest, not in March. In most cases that didn’t happen.

Who seems to be aware and has handled it well. Name names?

I don’t know enough to identify company officials who have done a good job of pandemic management or pandemic communication (or pre-pandemic planning and warning).

Corporate communications to the general public all seem pretty much the same: “We’re all in this together; we salute the heroes on the front line; here’s how our company is stepping up.” Behind the homogenous and somewhat treacly rhetoric, I assume some companies are doing a much better job than others of guiding and helping their stakeholders, especially their employees. I just don’t know which ones.

Looking at government pandemic communications, I started to make a list of standout performers. Then I realized that I had to cut some really good communicators from my list because I was aware of disqualifying moments. That left other really good communicators on my list who probably had disqualifying moments I didn’t know about. So I decided not to give you a list.

But that’s really too bad. My wife and colleague Jody Lanard and I keep talking about putting together a list of qualifying moments – spectacularly good fragments of pandemic communication worth emulating even if the very same communicators have sometimes been over-reassuring or overconfident or dishonest or unempathic. Maybe we’ll eventually get to it.

Jody says I should at least add a few names of leaders who have had excellent moments. So with the important qualifier that some (maybe all) have had awful moments too, here’s a short list:

The CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry
Santa Clara County’s Dr. Sarah Cody
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Ohio Health Department’s Dr. Amy Acton
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Seattle/King County’s Dr. Jeff Duchin.
Without naming names, what mistakes have you seen companies and nonprofits make?

In 2005–2007, fears of a horrific bird flu pandemic were widespread among experts, officials, and the general public. I worked on pandemic preparedness and pandemic planning with scores of companies and nonprofits (and governments too). Often jointly with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard, I wrote articles for my website on various aspects of pandemic communication, including a long four-part article on “What to Say When a Pandemic Looks Imminent.”

The bird flu pandemic never happened (so far, anyway), and the swine flu pandemic of 2009–2010 was mild – so 2020 was the first opportunity for companies and nonprofits to dust off and implement their bird flu pandemic plans.

To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t.

I’m not especially critical of how companies and nonprofits have weathered the pandemic crisis itself. We’re all muddling through as best we can. Most organizations are doing as well as could be expected. Some – many, even – are doing better than could be expected. An important exception: companies that have shown a callous disregard for their lowest-paid employees.

For the rest of this interview, please click here.


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