Ebola Where You Least Expect It

October 22, 2014

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Ebola continues to be a major media story around the world, which in turn has created a challenging risk communications environment for all kinds of organizations, not just those involved directly in health care. Even though the level of risk for most people of contracting the virus is minimal, that’s not the impression most people are getting from the near-constant media coverage. The result has been a very charged and emotional environment where fear is outpacing facts.

In such an environment, many organizations soon may find themselves having to answer questions from the media as well as their customers and employees about the issue. Airlines are facing scrutiny around the possibility they may have unwittingly carried a passenger exposed to the virus. Passenger rail and cruise lines likewise will need to be prepared to reassure travelers concerned about exposure. Hotels will face questions about how they screen guests, and their preparations to protect guests and workers should there be even a suspicion of Ebola. Companies in the food processing or food service industry may face questions about the safety of their products.

Employees at almost any company also will be asking questions about their potential for exposure and what their employers are doing to protect them. The issue has the potential to be raised by organized labor at the workplace and in negotiations.

In this environment it’s important that every organization consider how it will respond to questions around the Ebola issue – particularly how they might respond should they actually have to deal with a case of Ebola or potential exposure. The FH Crisis Practice has made sharing of best practices around this issue a priority and we are actively advising clients on how to incorporate this into their existing crisis plans.

Perhaps the most important counsel we are providing is that, in this kind of emotional environment where people seem to be ignoring facts and science, it can be easy for organizations to lose sight of basic crisis management practices. The temptation is to treat the Ebola issue as something unique where the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s just as crucial here to remember the basics: Be prepared, be transparent, deliver a consistent message, and stick with the facts. Audience education will be the most effective approach to protecting reputation.