We just put the world crisis of Ebola to bed and here we are, already faced with yet another looming epidemic. The Zika virus already has multiple countries on hyper-alert, and thousands of people feeling hesitant to attend this year’s summer Olympics in Rio.
As the Zika virus continues to spread, what are the major crisis management risks that healthcare organizations and government agencies should be thinking about?
As we saw with Ebola, the trouble with managing an epidemic crisis – in addition to the urgency of preventing contamination and saving lives – is the deep-routed emotional impact that can quickly escalate the crisis to a point of spreading irrational fear. As emotion cannot be trumped with logic, when a crisis gets to a point of spreading irrational fear, it becomes extremely difficult to manage. This is something we must always be mindful of when it comes to crisis management and crisis preparedness.
Can the Zika virus crisis potentially escalate to a point of irrational fear?
The Zika virus’s biggest suspected impact on humans to-date is that it may be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads and brain damage, which can lead to developmental problems. The images of the babies born with this condition are heartbreaking – not to mention terrifying for soon-to-be parents, as well as parents of young women who do not want their daughters to be exposed to such an earth-shattering virus.
In addition, the more the virus spreads, the more we’re learning that mosquitoes are not the only way to contract it. The CDC confirmed last week that the Zika virus can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse, and a case in Brazil revealed that a hospitalized patient contracted the virus as a result of a contaminated blood transfusion. Both are very scary realities.
Understandably, a virus (or any type of threat) that risks impacting a person’s child is one of the most emotionally impacting types of situations. It is also an emotion that is highly relatable, as all parents and soon-to-be parents can relate to the animalistic need to protect their young.
Taking these known facts into consideration, if the Zika virus continues to spread, developing into a real-world crisis (at the moment it’s a serious “issue” rather than a full-fledged crisis), it contains all three characteristics that contribute to escalating a crisis to a point of emotional viral impact.
The three elements of a viral crisis
When determining whether or not a crisis has a high likelihood of going viral, I assess the following three factors:
- Whether or not the situation / incident will have a strong negative emotional impact on stakeholders and/or the general public; and
- Whether this strong negative emotion is highly relatable – the more relatable something is, the more prone people will be to share it, retweet it, etc.; and
- Whether or not it contains highly shareable content, from short and catchy headlines to emotionally enticing images or videos.
Together, these three components can send a crisis going viral, which heightens its negative impact on the organization (in this case, “the organization” is the CDC, the government, relevant hospitals, etc.).
The Zika virus, unfortunately, has the potential to have all three of these elements.
So, if the virus continues to spread throughout the U.S and beyond, and unless a vaccine or cure is developed soon, there is a realistic risk that the Zika virus can a) develop into an epidemic crisis, and b) escalate to a point of spreading irrational fear.
Three crisis management strategies for managing the Zika virus crisis
Following are three important crisis management strategies that healthcare and government organizations should be implementing now, in order to help mitigate the risk of the Zika virus escalating to a point of spreading irrational fear.
1- Identify this risk of escalation
The first step is to identify and acknowledge this risk. Knowing that a crisis has the impact to escalate into a highly emotional crisis is a very important realization in one’s crisis preparedness. Awareness, in the right hands, leads to preparedness. And unless the CDC and other relevant healthcare and government organizations want to face an emotional crisis like they faced in 2014 with Fearbola*, then identifying and acknowledging this threat is an important first step. Let’s hope they’ve taken it.
* A crisis within the crisis of Ebola, Fearbola was the irrational fear of Ebola which quickly swept across North America, escalating the crisis management challenges for the government, the CDC, as well as countless hospitals across the U.S. and Canada.
2- Educate the public and provide hope
One of the mistakes made in the Ebola crisis, which lead to Fearbola, was a lack of education from the start. Fearbola arose due to the fact that people did not truly understand exactly how Ebola spread. This lack of education lead to the irrational fear that, once Ebola was brought to America, the whole country would inevitably contract the disease.
As emotion cannot be trumped with logic, once a crisis escalates to a point of high emotional impact, it’s hard to subdue the irrational fear with education. For this reason, it’s important that the public understand the risks and realities of the Zika virus before this issue ever escalates into a crisis. The CDC and other organizations, including media outlets with extended reach such as BBC News, Reuters, The New York Times and others, have already begun efforts to do this.
In addition to education, people want to know what is being done to prevent further spreading of the virus. President Obama recently went to Congress with a request for a $1.8 billion budget to help the U.S. get ready to fight this virus. This budget will go to researching a vaccine or cure, as well as preparedness training for healthcare organizations, mosquito control and more.
These are all strong leadership strategies focused on educating the public and implementing a hopeful action plan for managing the Zika virus issue before it escalates any further. Though these are strong crisis preparedness strategies (as well as strong crisis prevention strategies for mitigating the potential emotional escalation), these strategies will only work for a short amount of time. If the virus continues to spread, then the CDC, White House and other relevant government and healthcare organizations will need to be prepared with further crisis communications and proactive plans of action.
3- Monitor for escalation
In the meantime, organizations such as the CDC (which would potentially receive $828 million of President Obama’s $1.8 billion requested funding) need to monitor social media – in addition to the more physical/tactical monitoring of hospitals and diagnoses of the virus around the country – for hints of this emotional escalation.
When Fearbola began to spread in 2014, one of the main and primary places it caught fire was social media. People, including predominant public figures such as Donald Trump and others, took to social media to express their fear and outrage at the fact that Ebola was willingly being brought into the country.
Social media provides insight into the hearts and minds of today’s society. If an irrational fear began to escalate the Zika virus crisis, social media would be one of the first places to show the initial warning signs. As early detection is one of the most important first steps in crisis management, organizations such as the CDC should be dedicating resources to monitoring the most commonly used platforms in order to ensure appropriate proactive response when needed.
Crisis management takeaway: identify the emotional impact in all types of crises
As I mentioned, the Zika virus is not yet a crisis in North America, but it is an issue that holds the potential to escalate into a wide-spread, emotionally impactful crisis. It is also an issue that is not easily managed, as we don’t yet have all the answers to some very big questions concerning the Zika virus in general. And while the government and healthcare organizations are working hard to eradicate this threat, it’s also important to identify and mitigate the potential escalation factors that can otherwise lead to some severe crisis management complications.
And this doesn’t just apply to epidemic crises. There are countless other types of crises that risk having a negative emotional impact on your stakeholders, which can then magnify the crisis management challenges your organization would have to face. Looking at your crisis management from this angle is an important exercise that leads to even stronger crisis preparedness. So with this, let me leave you with the following question: Which crisis scenarios that pertain to your organization, risk having a strong negative emotional impact on your key stakeholders?
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.