PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Covid-19 has taken crisis response to a whole new level.
© 2020; 2021 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations
main page
About the author

This article was first drafted in late July 2020, a little more than six months after the United States first heard of Covid-19 and several months after we experienced our first "lock-downs" and self-quarantines. At that point, the Covid death toll in the U.S. was nearing 150,000. Now (Aug. 2021), the Covid death-toll in the U.S. has passed 613,000 and is at more than 4.2 million worldwide, and we don't know whether the worst is over or yet to come.

I was initially reluctant to discuss Covid-19 on this website because I am not a public health expert and have never before faced a pandemic. Furthermore, since I don't claim to have such expertise, I had no reason to think anyone would come to this site looking for Covid-related advice. I also knew that numerous government and professional organizations with far more expertise in these fields have extensive websites and I thought I should leave the Covid advice-giving to them. I still think that, but I also think it's appropriate for me to urge every public relations practitioner to seek and use such advice.

Initially, few people had any notion of the impact Covid-19 would have.

The first news reports treated it as just another, routine disease. New, yes; but we're used to hearing about new strains of the flu. -- That happens almost every year, and no one makes a big deal of it. -- In fact, lots of people, including the then-President of the United States, persisted in saying that Covid-19 was just another harmless strain of flu long after it been proven otherwise.

Consequently, it was initially possible and appropriate for people and organizations who weren't involved in healthcare -- and for others who didn't host any kinds of public gatherings -- to ignore, or at least not speak openly about, Covid-19. There was little or no pressure on them to announce what their response to Covid was or what they were doing to protect their customers, clients, and employees from coming in contact with it.

But, that was before we realized Covid-19 isn't just "another new strain of the flu" and that we were facing a worldwide pandemic.

Then, we experienced the power and terror of Covid-19.

People contracted it, became deathly ill, -- Many of those who required hospitalization also had to be placed on ventilators. -- and then they began dying by the tens of thousands. And, it happened all over the world regardless of geographic and climatological conditions and the season of the year. People got sick and died big cities and rural agricultural areas, in totally undeveloped locations as well as techologically-advanced ones, and in places with state-of-the-art hospitals and the most-advanced medical care known to science as well as places totally lacking in medical care.

As of Aug. 2, 2021, Covid-19 has been responsible for over 613,000 deaths in the United States and more than 4.23 million deaths worldwide. It has put tens of millions of people out of work, drastically reducing or completely cutting off the income they need to sustain their lives, and it threatens the life of virtually everyone on the planet. We have, however, come up with some defenses. Governments everywhere are continuing to struggle to contain the spread of the disease, to treat those who have become infected, to bury their dead, and to convince those who remain un-vaccinated to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

At the same time, we are beset with the development of new and more virulent strains of the virus. The Delta variant has been the most widely publicized, but it's not the only one out there. And, frighteningly, we have no guarantee that our current vaccines and treatment protocols will continue to be effective against them.

We may now be reaching the tipping point.

Having successfully developed and produced safe and effective vaccines, and having increasing numbers of people taking those vaccines, we may be on the road to overcoming Covid. That would be the best possible outcome, but it's not the only possible outcome and it is still a long ways off.

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to "return to normal" and in their personal euphoria over being vaccinated and thinking they're now completely safe {Fake news!], too many people are rushing out and are trying to return to their previous behaviors and ways of carrying on life without adequate regard for their own personal safety or that of others. I fear their exhuberance may be the death of them and of countless other people.

Given the percentages of people around the world who have not yet been vaccinated -- either because they choose not to be, or because they live in an area or a country where vaccines are not available to everyone -- and the reckless abandon with which people have quit wearing masks and are demanding that every gathering place return to operating at its pre-pandemic full capacity without any social distancing, it is possible that Covid cases and the Covid death toll could once again surge to unheard of levels. It could literally become the worst disaster in world history, and I pray that I don't live to see it.

In the midst of all this, the public is being confused by a hodge-podge of governmental mandates, public health advisories, and well-meaning expert opinions which often contradict one another and do little other than stir up anxiety. And, appallingly, we're being bombarded with constant angry shouting, outrageous and dangerous recommendations, and wild blatherings about Covid conspiracies by idiots on social media whose anger and dis-information is seeping more and more into our daily lives fueling shouting matches between socially-distancing mask-wearers who think everyone else should also be wearing a mask and angry anti-maskers who condemn mask mandates as violations of their right to personal freedom.

So, it's no longer possible for anyone who deals with the public, especially not public relations practitioners, to ignore Covid-19.

Covid has become such a dominant presence in our consciousness that failing to address it when dealing with the public is immediately recognized and held against you. You may be perceived as stupid, uncaring, or deceitful if you're not completely up front with the public and immediately tell people with whom you or your organization are about to interact:

Don't make them ask for this information. And, don't make them hunt for it. It needs to be readily apparent and immediately available. -- That means some combination of signs in your front window and on your door, banners on your website, handouts at your check-out counter and/or information booth, and optional messages on your phone system. All of which need to be simple and crystal clear. -- No jargon. No hype. No false promises. And, no beating about the bush.

I won't go into more detail about how to convey such information. That's for you to decide based on your knowledge and current relationships with your various publics. I am still no more of an expert on dealing with public health pandemics than I was a few months ago, and I still prefer that you get advice from real experts.

One excellent source of such expertise is: IABC's Covid-19 Resources hosted by the International Association of Business Communicators. It offers specific insight and details on the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic and how various organizations have responded to it as well as discussing successful public relations responses to other public health crises. Among the articles, I recommend are:

The first two were published in March 2020; the third in May 2021. But, all three are as relevant today as they were when they were first written.

Good luck to all of us in getting safely through this pandemic which is still far from over.

Overview of crisis communication
Crisis portal page
Stay well-informed to be ready
when a crisis hits
Performing public relations in a crisis

2 Aug. 2021