Like most people – and businesses – The Right Agency is carefully watching news of the Coronavirus as it unfolds. Updates are coming thick and fast and, despite reassurances, there is evidence of panic buying and you’ve currently got more chance of securing a winning lottery ticket than a bottle of hand sanitiser or some loo roll.
From a communications perspective it is fascinating to see the hunger for information that fear has created. It’s also a timely reminder that crisis communications in the digital age has changed significantly. It must now move quickly and be updated regularly or fake news and scaremongering will simply fill the void.
As a consumer of news, the COVID19 outbreak presents genuine psychological challenges. You don’t think you’re the stockpiling kind. No, you’re a sensible person, absolutely no need to panic. Except that suddenly print and digital media is full of photographs of empty supermarket shelves, so if everyone else is doing it then do you become the one who isn’t sensible because you’re not doing it? The next thing you know, you have five bags of dried pasta in your online shopping basket and you hate yourself.
But it does raise the question: how much truth is too much truth? When Northern Rock had to be bailed out, the news led to a run on the bank which ultimately hastened its demise. But, didn’t people have a right to know? Michael Buerk’s difficult-to-watch reporting from Ethiopia in the early eighties was a startling – much needed – wake-up call about what was happening outside of our little island. We needed that unvarnished truth; without it we wouldn’t have helped. Journalism can shine a searing spotlight, but the framing of truth in a situation like this is so important. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister called on both traditional and social media to be “responsible” with their reporting on the Coronavirus, but as PR people we read everything and I’m not too sure everyone is sticking to the guidelines of ‘educate and inform’….