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Crisis communication in times of coronavirus: “Lying is a definite no-go”

General management COVID-19 Crisis communication

Interview by Arno Meijnen with Prof. Hugo Marynissen published in Knack on 4 April 2020 

Should we wear a face mask or not? Is the government communicating honestly about the corona crisis? Professor of Crisis Communication Hugo Marynissen: “There is no one, not even Steven Van Gucht or Marc Van Ranst, who can offer a final answer to how this is going to evolve.” 

During the terrorist attacks of 22 March 2016, Hugo Marynissen was Advisor at the National Crisis Center. Today, he is affiliated to Antwerp Management School and is a lecturer at the postgraduate program in Disaster Management at Campus Vesta. 

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As a communication expert, how do you assess this crisis? 

Marynissen: This crisis can be classified as a ‘wicked problem. Wicked problems are problems that cannot be solved in a straightforward way. We have no idea when the outbreak will end. We don’t know if the measures will be enough. We don't know what will happen in the next few days, let alone weeks. Will we be able to travel this summer or not? Will the summer festivals still go ahead? Will we have another outbreak during the fall season? We don't know. With wicked problems you typically have little or no control over what is happening. And the problem itself may hide a series of underlying other problems. If we're not careful, we may very well end up in a recession or even a depression. This kind of situation is actually hard to compare with a classic crisis situation such as an explosion or a train crash. Because there you know: okay, this is what happened. You may not see it right away, but after one day you have a clear picture of what happened. 

So what you’re saying is that we’re in the middle of something that no one is prepared for, not even the crisis management experts? Is it totally new for the experts too, meaning you have to start from scratch? 

Marynissen: There's no one, not even Steven Van Gucht or Marc Van Ranst (note AMS: two virologists advising the Belgian Government), who can offer a final answer to how this is going to evolve. Does this mean that we have to start from scratch? No, it doesn't. We all have some knowledge and expertise and experience, in the medical world as well in other operational domains. Even before March 12, when the Government took strict measures, a lot of hospitals were already preparing themselves. 

How is the Government handling communication? Are they doing a good job? 

Marynissen. (hesitantly) Yes. The Crisis Center provides new information every day. Compared to other countries, we score particularly well in this. Is there still room for improvement? Yes, there always is. There are now almost 11 million questions, and everyone expects the Government to answer each and every one of them. The crisis center therefore clusters a lot of these questions. They start from a number of principles, such as 'wash your hands' or 'stay 1.5m apart'. 

According to government communication a month ago, Covid-19 was supposed to be a mild virus, while there were already disturbing reports from Italy coming in. 

Marynissen: That's right. Until March 11, I was convinced that the media were exaggerating the situation. I thought, What in God's name are we worrying about? It really gave me a shock. In just a few hours I realized I was completely wrong. A lot of people I was in contact with thought the same way. People from the emergency services, risk management, crisis management, and so on. Everyone said, It’s just a flu. I spoke to an emergency doctor a week before the measures were taken. He told me that the odds of getting infected with, and dying from, coronavirus, were just as high as the odds of winning the lottery. So how come me and other people from my field and similar fields totally misjudged this situation? I simply don’t know. 

Could the confusion during this crisis have been caused by failing crisis communication? 

Marynissen: No, I don't think so. Crisis communication only kicks off when a crisis occurs. At the moment, there was no crisis in Belgium. Rather, you might say, that risk communication fell short. We have already experienced a number of similar stories in recent years. Just think of SARS and Ebola. Each time we got some rather disturbing information. We never thought something like that could spread to Belgium, even in the highly connected world we live in today. 

Officially, you are allowed to visit your girlfriend or boyfriend, though it’s strongly discouraged. Yves Stevens, spokesperson for the Crisis Center, said on Tuesday (March 31): “If you are in doubt whether you can do something or not, just don't do it”. Why are the measures not drawn up in such a way that there is no doubt? 

Marynissen: “There are 11 million Belgians who all have different questions. Can we go for a bike ride or a walk? Can I still go horseback riding? When I go fishing with my friends, we're always 10m apart anyway, so can we still go fishing? It's just hard to answer every single question. The general principle is that we all need to help slow down the spread of the virus. So take extra care. And if you’re in doubt, just don't do it and stay home. 

Still, there are many ways to interpret these principles. How is a crisis center supposed to deal with that? 

Marynissen: This kind of situation causes a lot of stress, and stress leads to anxiety. Every day we get messages about how many people have died. That's not good for morale. Especially when children die. It’s only natural that people look to the Government for answers. That is very difficult. But as far as I can see, they try to communicate the principles as clearly and soberly as possible. If there's any doubt, don’t go out. The catchy phrase ‘Stay home, stay safe!sums it up fantastically. 

Can the government lie to prevent people from hoarding during crises? Such as face masks, which are needed for medical staff? 

Marynissen: No. Lying is a definite no-go. The truth will always come out anyway. With the best will in the world, I simply cannot imagine that the Home Secretary's communications team (Team D5, part of the National Crisis Center, Ed.) would do that. I’d bet my life on it. 

Suppose experts know that 100,000 people will be killed in two months' time. In a crisis situation, is it ever appropriate not to provide such information? Or to do so bit by bit? 

Marynissen: (thinks) That is a difficult question. That is looking into a crystal ball, and no one gets any better from that. It is important that the Government informs people with data that has been validated. You can say, 'The number of deaths will still increase, we are not yet at the peak.' And that is the general message to this day. But to come up with exact figures, as other people in other countries do, including even presidents, no, I don't think that's a wise thing to do. 

In complex situations you typically only gradually obtain partial information. Every day we gain a little more knowledge and a little more experience. If it turns out that everyone should be wearing face masks, then you need to explain why it is important that people in the care industry and in other critical jobs have to be supplied with face masks first and foremost. Those critical jobs, by the way, also include the people who work in supermarkets and who make sure that we can cook dinner every night. 

Are you still teaching today? 

Marynissen: Two weeks ago, I had one day of lectures scheduled. I did most of them online. And the students still have to hand in some assignments, although they’ve been given some extra time. Many of my students are people who work in care or welfare services. 

Will your course look different after this crisis? 

Marynissen: I think it will. (laughs) We will talk about pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus times. The whole story of crisis management and risk management is going to change a lot. And that is exactly as it should be. 

 

Do you want to contact Hugo Marynissen? Or do you have a question? Let him know via Hugo.Marynissen@ams.ac.be.