When trying to avoid panic leads to hysteria

It is understandable that health authorities don’t want the public to panic about the coronavirus.

But could the desire to avoid that alarm and fear actually cause more hysteria?

The threat of infectious diseases is scary and that means people want information. It’s human nature.  

However, sometimes that information isn’t forthcoming.

Let’s take the example of two doctor surgeries in Bristol that were suddenly closed last week.

When both the Maytrees and Eastville medical practices were shut on Wednesday (12/2), it was put down to “unforeseen circumstances”.

That was the total of the information, even though one of the practises had an alarming sign describing it as an ‘isolation area’.

According to BristolLive, no-one was available to comment from either centre, while a spokesperson for the NHS Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire CCG was reportedly unable to say why the surgeries had closed.

When a spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care was asked if it was linked to coronavirus, they said: “We will not be providing rolling updates on possible cases.”

Even when the surgeries were re-opened it seems that no explanation was given.

A friend from Bristol said to me: “We seemed to have had a situation where nobody wanted to say anything because they were worried about causing hysteria.

“But by saying nothing, they actually caused hysteria.”

It was a similar situation in my home town where a GP surgery was also closed last week due to “unforeseen circumstances”. Signs were put up telling people not to enter the building and bollards were put across the entry road.

It was not until the end of the day that more information was released, through a statement that seemed determined not to mention Coronavirus.

The closure was put down to the need for a ‘deep clean’ after a patient was seen at the practice who had travelled through Asia.

Surely some clarification and explanation could have come sooner. In an age where rumour and misinformation spread at breakneck speed, concern and panic filled the vacuum left by the lack of communication.

Maybe the Bristol closures weren’t due to the virus and the timing was completely coincidental. But by not giving any information about the incident, speculation was always going to take over at a time of heightened awareness.

In a crisis a lack of information tends to increase worry rather than put a lid on it.

As the reporting of the Bristol closures suggests, it doesn’t seem to be completely clear who is leading the comms response to these incidents.

But what is clear is that the communication isn’t following crisis media management rules.

When crisis strikes, whether is it to do with the spread of a disease or something else, organisations must communicate quickly and regularly.

Silence or a lack of information serves only to fuel the rumour mill. And in the case of health threats that can cause hysteria.

And while I appreciate that there is undoubtedly a requirement here to get messages and statements signed-off, and that is time consuming, surely much of this can be resolved through pre-approved holding statements.

Why isn’t there a holding statement provided by the Department for Health and Social Care that surgeries can use when they need a deep clean because of a potential coronavirus case? As with all holding statements at the start of a crisis media management incident, it wouldn’t need to say a lot, but going beyond “unforeseen circumstances” could play a crucial part in preventing the social media rumour mill from going into overdrive.

The reluctance to mention Coronavirus or Covid-19, as it is now called is understandable.

But there are ways of acknowledging it without adding to the fear.

A holding statement for a surgery could say something like: “We have had to close the surgery for a precautionary deep clean.

“We would like to stress that there is no evidence at this time to suggest that this is a coronavirus incident.

“But patient safety and that of our staff always comes first and that is why it is important we have taken this precautionary step.

“We expect the surgery to reopen again soon.”  

Omitting the coronavirus detail just fuels the rumour and speculation.

 

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Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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