Corporate pandemic precaution advocacy: The time is now

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Business continuity planners say they're talking to their employees and other stakeholders about pandemic preparedness. Is it really happening?

At the start of CIDRAP's February 2007 Business Preparedness for Pandemic Influenza: Second National Summit in Orlando, 45% of attendees said communication was the most important preparedness priority for their company "beyond health and safety." That ranked it No. 1. By the end of the conference, communication was No.1 by an even wider margin—67%.

I asked participants which of two kinds of communication took precedence. One priority is a standby crisis communication plan—developed now so you're ready to roll if and when a pandemic materializes. The other priority is a pandemic precaution advocacy rollout—actual communications, now, aimed at alerting employees and others to the risk, telling them what the company is doing, and urging them to get ready. The pandemic precaution advocacy rollout eked out a narrow victory, 32% to 30%, with 38% saying the two were equally important. 

These are the answers I wanted to hear, but I don't trust that they reflect what's really happening.

Just about every time I'm invited to give a speech or run a workshop on pandemic communication, I ask my client whether I should focus mostly on crisis communication ("when the virus hits the fan") or precaution advocacy ("getting ready together"). The usual choice is crisis communication. I have to argue hard for some attention to the prepandemic communication task of sounding the alarm.

When I have a chance to run a workshop that covers both, I have learned the hard way to start with crisis communication. If the group works on precaution advocacy first, the messages it comes up with tend to be awfully mild—largely because participants haven't imagined their way into a serious pandemic yet. Working first on crisis communication gives people a sense of the horrific messages they would have to deliver in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic. That sets a very different context for the second half of the program: "What can we say to people beforehand to help prepare for the exercise we just went through?"

Good pandemic precaution advocacy now, in other words, can make pandemic crisis communication later a less impossible task. Not much of it seems to be happening yet from companies.

What's happening, what's not

In fairness, some pandemic precaution advocacy is happening for some stakeholders. In particular, many companies are talking to their suppliers about pandemic preparedness—mostly in search of promises (unenforceable though they may be) to keep the supply chain filled no matter what. I hope the dialogue will move to a more realistic level, something like this: "We can manage without X and Y if we have to. What can we do together to make you likelier to be able to keep us supplied with Z?" But at least a dialogue is happening.

Companies are less interested in initiating pandemic conversations with customers. I assume this is because companies don't have good news for customers and are in no hurry to offer up bad news. "Don't expect us to be able to meet your needs" isn't a fun message to deliver. But in many cases, these crucial conversations are happening anyway, initiated by the customers.

So far I have seen virtually no pandemic communication between companies and their shareholders. But the investor community may finally have pandemic risk on its radar screen. For a while, articles speculating on the likely economic impact of a severe pandemic became commonplace. As the lead sidebar article in this issue points out, the business press has lost interest in the pandemic story, at least for the moment. We can only hope that investors got the message already, and will start asking companies how prepared they are. The sooner the better.

At the Orlando conference, Michael Evangelides, principal of Deloitte Consulting, LLP, presented data showing that CFOs were a lot less interested in pandemic preparedness than were continuity managers. That would change fast if huge pension funds started asking hard questions. Imagine how companies might respond, for example, if they got a letter from the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) indicating that CalPERS was planning to screen its investments for pandemic preparedness.

Corporate pandemic communication aimed at neighbors or the general public still seems to be extremely rare. In fact, business leaders have been shockingly silent in the general-interest media about pandemic risk. Thanks to Google News, I am able to read a lot of media stories (local as well as national and international) about pandemic risk. The main sources are usually health officials, politicians, or academics, not companies. The companies that manufacture antivirals are an obvious exception, and I've seen other exceptions—articles on the preparedness efforts of the grocery, telecommunications, and banking industries, among others. But finding examples of corporate CEOs speaking out on pandemic preparedness is hard.

In late 2006, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University sponsored a 3-day conference on pandemic news coverage. I asked a lot of participants what they were writing about business preparedness. "Not much," reporter after reporter told me. "It's hard to find a company willing to say anything on the record about its pandemic planning."

Are you talking to employees yet?

The single most important audience for corporate pandemic precaution advocacy is, of course, employees. Are companies actually talking to their employees about pandemic preparedness?

I don't mean vague assurances that employees should "rest assured that your company is doing everything possible to be fully prepared in the unlikely event of a bird flu pandemic." I've seen some of those. I mean detailed, vivid communications that aim at three key goals:

  • Briefing employees on company preparedness efforts
  • Involving employees in those efforts
  • Persuading employees to launch their own preparedness efforts at home and in the community

I haven't seen many corporate efforts to achieve these three goals.

Judging from my clients, getting top management's okay to talk frankly with employees about pandemics is an uphill battle. I hear two basic reasons for not doing so:

  • "We're not ready yet"—As if it made sense to wait till your corporate pandemic planning were nearly done before asking employees to get involved, and before urging them to do some planning of their own.
  • "We don't want to unduly frighten people"—As if the looming possibility of a severe pandemic weren't "duly" frightening . . . and as if it were more important to keep employees unconcerned than to get them prepared.

There's a better rationale for not communicating right now: "Employees aren't interested in pandemics. Until they are, there's not much point in trying to talk to them." This is, of course, the exact opposite of the we-don't-want-to-frighten-them rationale; it suggests waiting for a teachable moment when frightening your employees will be more feasible. If your company already has its pandemic employee precaution advocacy messaging done and you're just waiting till employees are in a mood to listen, okay. Don't wait too long.

But I'd bet my mortgage that's not what's happening. If anything, companies will be even less willing to talk candidly and frighteningly about pandemics when their employees are already buzzing with pandemic anxiety.

Go ahead, get started

So what are companies really waiting for? I'm afraid they're waiting for a pandemic. The votes at CIDRAP's Orlando conference notwithstanding, it seems to me that most companies have not yet made communication a priority in their pandemic preparedness work. In particular, they have not yet done much employee pandemic precaution advocacy.

It's time to get started.

An internationally renowned expert in risk communication and crisis communication, Peter Sandman speaks and consults widely on communication aspects of pandemic preparedness. Dr. Sandman, Deputy Editor, contributes an original column to CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing every other week. Most of his risk communication writing is available without charge at the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Web Site, which includes an index of pandemic-related writing on the site.

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