Emma BeckEmma Beck

A crisis client slides into our conference room seat, her anxiety emblematic of the dire developments consuming her immediate circumstances. A quickened pulse, shortened breath, subconscious myopia. In that moment, she feels jarred by the panic, blurring her ability to address both the next steps and her overall disposition.

A mentor once told me: “We can deal with the facts, but it is the unknown that paralyzes us.” As crisis communicators, our job lies in restoring our client with a sense of control to ensure the right decisions are made in the midst of anxiety. With information as our weapon, we arm clients with the facts to give them a holistic understanding of how a matter might play out. This positions our clients to respond proactively with a strategy underwritten by substantive information.

Within the health space, Zika presents the latest possibility of a crisis threatening the U.S. To date, the U.S. has confirmed at least 312 cases of Zika in-country (most contracted the virus via travel to affected zones or through sexual transmission). The World Health Organization further estimates that Zika will infect between three to four million individuals across the Americas.

At the same time, a February 2016 survey released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center reveals the speculation already at play: 42 percent of participants said those infected by Zika were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to die. Now, more than ever, federal agencies and high-risk state and local governments have a tremendous opportunity to take control of the situation by using the facts to get ahead of public concern.

The gaffes in the U.S. government’s Ebola response resulted in a spiral of misinformation that fueled public anxiety. With an eye to Zika, public health officials and political leaders have the opportunity to retrace their steps and deliver clear information early that mobilizes the public to take preventative measures, all while dispelling the rumor mill that feeds public fear. Indeed, from a reputational hit threatening corporate standing to a health endemic with unforeseen consequences, the elements that play into an effective crisis communications response remain the same: facts must inform the messaging to build trust and spur action. With this foundation, all communication must remain consistent, transparent and credible. A misstep among any of these components poses tremendous risk in how an emergency response unfolds.

In addressing a potential Zika outbreak, the government has several elements to consider:

An audience that trusts the messenger will heed to the call to action. The government can build trust by being honest — in a responsible way — about what they do not know or have under control. Readily offering all information at hand, and efficiently updating as new developments arise, will empower the public to make informed decisions and collectively help prevent the start — or, worse, spread — of a Zika epidemic. The government’s messaging must address Zika’s real risks, detail precautionary measures the public can take, explain how one can identify Zika infection and highlight the surveillance mechanisms already in place.

Demonstrate a controlled, streamlined approach. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika Communication Planning Guide for States provides a roadmap for how states can implement phased responses should Zika go viral: the preparatory, contingency phase — where we currently find ourselves — to messaging for use during the summer mosquito season; following confirmed local transmission; and in the case of a widespread outbreak, the CDC’s guidelines streamlines the communications plan. This ensures the facts imparted protect citizens, inform key decision makers and prevent the duplication of efforts. A triaged approach further demonstrates a proactive and controlled response, bolstering the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to effectively manage a potential viral outbreak.

Ensure the message reaches a broad spectrum of the public by tapping into various communications channels. In today’s hyper-digitalized world, one can no longer rely on solely one platform to reach a target audience. Whether a Zika-specific government landing page that can be repurposed across state and local government websites or a Twitter and Facebook page dedicated to Zika updates, government agencies can reach the public across a range of digital platforms. At the same time, the government can ensure Zika-related media outreach gives emphasis to the states prone to a possible epidemic. This gives weight to the government’s grasp of where to channel their resources and attention with consideration to who remains at highest risk for Zika contraction.

All crisis clients — from a CEO who steps into our office to the government agencies responding to Zika at the national level — have to understand that addressing anxiety at the outset of a situation ensures decisions are made based on solid information. An effective crisis communications strategy will mobilize those impacted, direct attention to the areas most needed and counter fear by disseminating facts. The government should thus have a firm crisis communications plan in place so they can demonstrate headstrong action, inspiring public trust in the ability to control the response.

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Emma Beck is an account executive at crisis communications agency LEVICK. She can be reached at [email protected].