Coronavirus: The World Health Organization, Black Swans and Infodemics

February 12, 2020 • 6 minute read

Coronavirus: The World Health Organization, Black Swans and Infodemics

Coronavirus: The World Health Organization, Black Swans and Infodemics

Infinite Global has spent much of the last three weeks advising clients facing the physical, commercial and reputational risks posed by the 2019-nCoV Coronavirus outbreak.

Many of our clients, not least those operating in China and across the wider ASEAN region, are facing a plethora of complex issues, not limited to ensuring the safety of employees and their families.

The economic ripple effects of the outbreak are already being felt beyond China’s borders: international retail stores (including Starbucks) closed across the region, aeroplanes grounded, cruise ships quarantined, Thai and Australian tourist attractions shut and South Korean manufacturing suspended. Many of the world’s leading technology companies continue to pull out of the 2020 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, threatening the viability of holding the 100,000-delegate conference in late February. Apple CEO Tim Cook used a recent earnings call to reassure analysts following the extended closing of several Apple outlets in China as they undergo “frequent deep-cleaning” of their stores.

Decision-making during active crises is fraught with difficulty. Businesses globally are having to make careful judgments around how to maintain BAU operations and minimize any bottom line financial and reputational impact, while simultaneously protecting their individuals from harm.

Navigating the Infodemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) is moving quickly to contain the spread of the virus and manage its associated risks. Its communication task is daunting: communicating openly and transparently with a huge range of different stakeholders, from governments and transnational bodies, public and private sector organizations, to civil society groups and individual members of countless cultures. In doing so, it must always strike the correct balance between keeping the public informed and vigilant, without prompting panic or conjecture.

Part of the WHO’s challenge has been battling the proliferation of inaccurate information and misinformation threatening to undermine relief efforts. The WHO’s daily Coronavirus Situation Reports have warned that a colossal “infodemic” continues to spread “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not.”

Misinformation is common in any crisis scenario. In tackling crisis incidents, organizations must have appropriate systems in place to seek, identify and proactively counter inaccurate misinformation in the public domain, before it embeds deeply into accepted narrative. The WHO is well-prepared in this regards; one of the key objectives laid out in its Coronavirus Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan is to ‘communicate critical risk and event information to all communities, and counter misinformation’. The February 2nd Situation Report confirms that “due to the high demand for timely and trustworthy information about 2019-nCoV, WHO technical risk communication and social media teams have been working closely to track and respond to myths and rumours.”

A Framework of Guiding Principles for Communication

The WHO’s approach to managing its emergency communications offers a useful example for all crisis communicators. The organization uses a Strategic Communications Framework for Effective Communications to guide its communications planning and execution. Drafted in 2017, the Framework provides clear principles that must be met when undertaking all communications activity. WHO communications must be 1) Accessible, 2) Actionable, 3) Credible and Trusted, 4) Relevant, 5) Timely and 6) Understandable. Though simple, a clear methodology and ‘roadmap’ such as this can prove invaluable during high stress scenarios in which considered decision-making can be difficult.

It is clear the approach is being used live in the WHO’s current communication output. In line with the Framework, the February 2nd WHO Situation Report further warns against any organizations “communicating uncertainty and risk” that will deliver a “loss of trust and reputation” and potentially a loss of lives, whereas accurate and faithful communications engagement will “build trust in the response and increases the probability that health advice will be followed”, helping “minimize rumour and misunderstandings that undermine responses and may lead to further disease spread.”

Black Swans

Recent weeks have seen the crisis resilience of organizations globally being tested deeply and unforgivingly in real-time. Coronavirus has provided a stark if unwelcome reminder of the need for every organization to undertake rigorous business continuity and crisis planning around a comprehensive range of risk scenarios, not least the high impact, low probability Black Swan events too often overlooked during risk mapping and mitigation.

It is not uncommon to observe crisis planning focus too narrowly on a relatively limited selection of risk scenarios, while neglecting many other potentially more damaging outcomes. In short, too many crisis plans are overly optimistic in their outlook and often predicated on the ‘ideal’ crisis unfolding in an unrealistically predictable manner. By contrast, in reality, some organizations are now facing dangerously infected employees, failing supply chains and precarious share prices – a scenario few leadership teams calculated or prepared for.

Infinite Global has written elsewhere on how a range of cognitive and emotional biases can distort the human brain’s capacity for accurately evaluating risk and probability. Understanding the effects of (amongst others) Recency Bias, Availability Bias, Optimism Bias and Deformation Professionelle should be mandatory for anyone engaged in risk strategy and crisis management.

Coronavirus has also demonstrated the importance of ensuring that the entire infrastructure of an organization’s crisis response – covering incident response plans, business continuity planning, crisis management and communications strategy, leadership decision-making and more – must work smoothly as a collective whole, not as a series of siloed initiatives. In our crisis preparedness work with clients across different sectors, it is not uncommon to find information gaps or blockages at critical junctures between business continuity and crisis communications protocols. Though hard to detect during table-top exercises and other stress-testing programmes, these gaps will be exposed when a scenario of sufficient magnitude – a Black Swan – emerges.


Peter Barrett is Director and UK Head of Crisis, Litigation & Special Situations in Infinite Global’s London office.