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The WHO’s handling of the ultimate crisis comms project

27 July 2020

By Joe Cockerline, Senior Consultant

Covid-19 has changed our world. It has brought people, communities and nations together, and driven them apart.This sobering assessment came from the World Health Organisation (WHO) as it embarked on the next stage of the biggest crisis management project in its history.

Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak and amid the deluge of news and updates from around the world you would, however, be forgiven for not being entirely mindful of the latest word from the World Health Organisation. The WHO has been one voice in a very crowded room when it comes to making announcements on the state of the virus, but its ongoing global updates remain vital sources of information. 

One thing characterises recent proclamations from the WHO – a sense of impending doom. Recent announcements have focused on the fact that the world has “a long hard road ahead” in the fight against COVID, that the world is “heading in the wrong direction” and that “the worst is yet to come”. This message is starkly at odds with the increasingly optimistic announcements from the UK Government, as the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions continues across much of Europe, albeit with concerns growing around international travel. 

Of course, the WHO’s remit goes beyond Europe and the US and the virus continues to grow in major countries such as Brazil and India, confirming that COVID-19 remains a growing threat in much of the world. But even taking this into account, the WHO has conspicuously given its focus to the scale of the challenge still facing the global community, rather than drawing positives from nations such as New Zealand and Taiwan, who have had success in managing their outbreaks. 

The fact is that the WHO has an unenviable role. We’ve heard plenty about how we’re living through “unprecedented times” and the cold reality for the WHO is that its job is to be the harbinger of doom, to an extent. The organisation presents an unabashed view of the worst-case scenario facing the world. The frankness of this assessment, though jarring when compared to much of the wider messaging, serves a vital purpose – namely, encouraging nations around the globe to err on the side of caution and prepare for the worst. 

It’s never nice to be the bearer of bad news, but against a backdrop of a somewhat fragmented global community, with numerous disparate initiatives designed to fight the virus in play, it’s simply the most effective way for the WHO to attempt to drive cohesion. The organisation sugar-coats no part of its announcements and continues to campaign for global preparations which involve adjusting to living with COVID-19, rather than beating the virus by Christmas as some have posited. The latter is the ideal but the former is a very distinct possibility. 

There’s a lesson in here for corporates in one crisis management tactic. The WHO has employed a crisis comms basic – “tell it, tell it all and tell it quickly”. The temptation for organisations faced with an impending “bad news” announcement to their customers can be to attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue. It’s a tactic that can backfire with disastrous consequences. Hiding the scale of the issue facing your customers is one of the most certain ways of damaging the trust they have in you. Often, people deal much better with a frank admission, rather than an attempt to mask the reality. 

One of the key desirable outcomes from any crisis is the preservation of a loyal customer base, who will continue to rely on an organisation’s services once a crisis has abated. In the minds of many, that loyalty is mutual and hard-won, most effectively by organisations who are perceived to be honest and prepared to do the right thing. If your customers think you’ve been dishonest with them, that loyalty erodes incredibly quickly. It’s the same tenant employed by the WHO here – if the organisation celebrates wins against COVID-19 too early it risks engendering a false sense of security on a global scale, with potentially disastrous consequences and doing serious damage to its long-term reputation in the process. 

I’ll leave comments on the handling of the pandemic itself to those more qualified, but it’s clear that the regular news flow of warning signals is part of a defined strategy by the WHO. By preparing the world for the worst, the organisation hopes that everyone, from global leaders to the person on the street, won’t underestimate the seriousness of COVID-19 and will take appropriate precautions to contain and stop the disease spreading. Likewise, businesses large and small can take a leaf out of the WHO’s playbook. Honesty and openness can sometimes be the best policy when it comes to weathering the storm of a crisis.