Swine Flu Rumors & Haig – Biden Syndrome

Swine Flu and Crisis Communications are our topic this morning.

Two of the worst classic behaviors of crisis communications are beginning to take shape as we get several days into the Swine Flu hysteria. So I come to you today with warnings so that you can look for these behaviors, then I want to give you actual steps to help stop them dead in their tracks, then I want to give you steps you can take to set the stage to keep them from happening in the future.

The first behavior is managing rumors, which is harder to control than ever before because of Social Media and web communications.

The second behavior is what I call Alexander Haig syndrome, which we I may be renaming to Joe Biden syndrome.

First let’s address rumors. Good communications is about how do I want my audience to behave. That needs to be the goal of all of your communications. Not listening to rumors and going to officials sources is the behavior we want out of our audiences at this time, be that audience media, employees, customers, hospital patients, school children, parents, citizens.

My wife works at a school where the rumor e-mails started pouring in yesterday. All were e-mails forwarded from a friend warning that there were secret cases of Swine Flu that the hospitals, schools and government were not telling us about.

This is exactly why I always preach that in crisis communications you have one hour or less to begin your own communications and why making this one hour deadline means stockpiling a massive quantity of communications templates that you can access quickly. This is why when I write a crisis plan with a client we often create 100 or more communications templates in a day.

The most effective words that you can use in your communications are, “This is what we can confirm.” You should also include the phrases or admonition, such as, “We ask members of the media, employees and members of our community to avoid repeating rumors and turn to official sources for information.” Then your statement should tell the audience what those official sources are, emphasizing that your website is THE official source for all information related to you and your services.

The ability for rumors to be spread via e-mail and text messaging scares the pants off of me. A rumor can circle the globe several times via the web before your executives even meet to discuss this. In this short amount of time I can’t tell you all I know about writing messages in advance, but if you’d like to know more just call me at 985-624-9976.

The second classic flawed behavior of a crisis is what I call Alexander Haig syndrome, which is where someone who is not a top decision maker tries to take control of the situation and begins making bold, flawed decisions and statements. (This of course is a cultural reference to March 30, 1981 when President Ronald Ragan was shot and Secretary of State Alexander Haig proclaimed he was in charge, even though he was only 5th in line for the presidency.)

But the reality is, good crisis planning and good crisis communications planning must always take place on a calm, clear, sunny day and not in the throes of a crisis, where panic and anxiety are present.

When panic and anxiety are present we experience 2 extremes. The first extreme is decision paralysis where people are afraid to make decisions because the decision may be the wrong decisions. We saw that at Virginia Tech where officials waited 2 hours and 16 minutes to issue their first communiqué, when the reality was that had they communicated faster, they may have been able to save lives because that first communiqué went out 11 minutes after the second assault began, which resulted in 29 more deaths.

The other extreme is the Alexander Haig syndrome, where people make bold decisions and bold statements that historically end up looking stupid. Vice President Joe Biden has done this today, proclaiming on national news that he has told his family that he would not fly, take mass transit or go anyplace where a large crowd may be gathered. None of these are actual recommendations from the U.S. government, nor are they the recommendation of national health experts.

Both Haig and Biden are famous for saying dumb things. We may already be seeing the impact of this behavior as school systems cancel all sporting events to prevent crowds from gathering. The reality is, sporting events could still continue with players playing safely, but perhaps with no crowds are with limitations on crowd sizes.

The test is on decision paralysis or Haig/Biden syndrome come by judging whether or not your leaders are having to make decisions on the spur of the moment or whether most of the decisions were made on a clear sunny day. In the case of Haig, the founding fathers decided on a clear day in 1776 that the Vice President, and not the Secretary of State, is in charge if the President is incapacitated. In the case of Joe Biden today, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Heath Organization have official guidelines that they laid down on a clear sunny day to determine whether it is safe to take a plane, ride a train, use mass transit or go to a crowded shopping mall. Biden’s advice is not only unsound, but could have serious financial consequences by bringing commerce to a halt at a time when the economy is already hurting.

So what steps should you take if you have not already taken them?

Step 1) Hold a Vulnerability Assessment meeting today to discuss all the scenarios of what could happen to your company/school/hospital/agency as it relates to the Swine Flu. That means discussing how you will manage and respond to rumors, and how you will respond if the outbreak progresses.

Step 2) Decide what actions you will take as certain events unfold, such as what are the parameters that trigger certain behaviors and communications. When I write a crisis communications plan, for example, it has levels of severity, designed to indicate specific communications strategies. The Centers for Disease Control, for example has a 6-point scale of severity, designed to trigger key responses. Currently we are on level 5 of the 6-point scale.

Step 3) Start writing. You need communications written today that you may never use, but that is at the ready should you need it. Think of these as fill-in-the blank templates to which you can add the who, what, when, why and how on the day you need them. But today, much of what you need to say on the day of the crisis can be written. You can list agencies that you are coordinating efforts with. You can list precautions people should take. You can create fill-in-the-blank sections that might describe injuries, infections or fatalities should it come to that. I think that today you may be able to write 75%-90% of what you might need to say. This saves you an enormous amount of time when the crisis really hits, allowing you to communicate rapidly and beat the rumors.

Step 4) Do Media Training now. Never let a spokesperson wing an interview. Media are reporting lots of stories on precautions and what if. Many of the spokespeople I see look like deer caught in the headlights; many look robotic and read statements with a monotone voice. Your credibility is higher when your spokesperson looks comfortable and sounds like they know the material. Some spokespeople do well delivering their statements, but then flush it all down the drain when they screw up during the question and answer portion of their news conferences. Many just don’t understand how to stick to their message and how to use those messages to answer a negative question.

Step 5) Schedule a Crisis Communications Drill as soon as possible. It is critical that you test the behavior of your communications team and your leadership team to make sure everyone can work together, follow written plans, and play well together in the sand box while under stress. In the book “Good to Great” the author says make sure you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats – that is, make sure you have the right employees in the right jobs. He goes on to say that if they are not the right people in the right seats that you should get them off of the bus as quickly as possible because of the irreparable damage they can do. Of all the Crisis Communications Drills that I’ve conducted in my career, twice the company had to fire people who performed so poorly in the drill that it was clear they were not the right people in the right job. One of those fired was because he displayed Alexander Haig syndrome and withheld critical information from the Crisis Management Team. The other person was in a public relations position and she was unable to get her first statement release during a 4 hour drill because she had no pre-written templates to work from and because she was focused on too many other things and not focused on rapid communications.

Keep an eye on all of my websites and blogs for the latest information designed to help you. I look forward to seeing your comments on the blog.

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For additional resources please visit these site:

Crisis Communications Resources & Learning

More on writing a Crisis Communications Plan

School Crisis Plans & Crisis Communications

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