How horror movies can help us handle the Coronavirus.

Ever seen the movie “Signs” by M. Night Shyamalan?

Personally, I think it’s terrifying. That scene where the alien appears and Joaquin Phoenix gets the living daylights scared out of him…well, he wasn’t the only one that wanted to go curl up in a ball and cry. But you know what I think is even more terrifying than the alien appearing?

The preceding portion of the movie where you never even see the monster.

You don’t know what it looks like. You don’t know how deadly it is. You don’t know what to expect when it finally appears. And what happens as a result? Your mind is left to fill in the blanks. But as all expert horror movie makers know…what you imagine is almost always MUCH worse than anything shown on screen.

In the words of Alfred Hitchcock himself:

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

It’s just how humans operate. Leave it to our imaginations and we’ll personally fill in our mental canvas with the ugliest, most dreadful picture possible. So what in the world does this have to do with the Coronavirus?

Well, if you’re a sane human then you’ve probably been keeping up with what’s going on to some degree. First it seemed like it could just be a few isolated incidents. Then it became a major problem in China. And now a few cases are popping up in the United States.People are becoming scared. They’re wearing face masks that don’t even work. Panic and fear are growing at a faster rate than the virus itself.

And the media is by no means helping.

In place of helpful and factual information that can save lives we’re getting fear mongering that is slowly but surely stoking the fires of mass hysteria. And as a former journalist turned crisis communicator, one thing I can’t help but notice is how the coverage went from a virus in China that was uncontained to how the spread of it will impact the economy and supply chain.

The immediate question that came to my mind is:

What the heck happened to the middle of the story?

How did we go from outbreak to business impact in a blink of an eye? Where are the human interest stories? Where is the empathy? Where is the seeking to understand the human toll of the issue? On one hand we have fear-inducing reports of the virus spreading. And on the other hand we have facts, figures and economic forecasts.

There’s a clear problem here – which is that there is no spokesperson, figurehead or (as I like to call it) De-escalator in Chief that’s addressing the HUMAN element of the story and situation. From the head of the World Health Organization saying everyone needs to “calm down” to the politicization of the issue from the highest office in the land, there’s no one that’s really stepped up to assuage our fears. Even the Surgeon General Jerome Adams is surprisingly quiet on the subject.

I can assure you that this is NOT the right way to go about things.

By not giving this issue a face or a human element — we are causing more fear. Remember, you have to start where people are — not where you want them to be. We can’t jump from outbreak to business impact without first helping people through that mental journey.

And this isn’t just about the Coronavirus – the same applies to any business crisis.

Unless you have someone consistently and calmly commenting about how the issue is being handled, you leave people to play “Madlibs” with a crisis and fill in the vacuum with their worst fears. Of course, this leaves room for the most toxic voices to be the loudest, serving only to further the panic.

Like the alien from Signs – we’re left to fill in the picture with something much worse than reality. And if it’s not the picture we create ourselves, it’s one that someone paints for us.

The end result? Fear spirals. Emotions run rampant. Rationality goes out the window. No one’s in a position to get anything done. And the problem only gets worse as time goes on. On the other hand, when you have a calm, authoritative human face that people can correlate with the issue – one that reassures their fears, helps them feel heard and understood, and inspires confidence in the fact that actions are being taken…you end up with a group of people who are much more able to handle the situation.

Panicked and/or silent leaders lead to panicked situations. Confident leaders lead to calm situations.

As a former master FBI hostage negotiator, this is something Chip Massey, Partner at the When and How Agency knows all to well.

Think some kind of siege or standoff involving hostages. There will be one person who is designated the on-scene commander (OSC). All plans and activity are coordinated through the OSC. The OSC sets the tone for all the other people and teams involved.

As you can imagine, the OSC is a huge factor in how well all the other teams and personnel interact with each other. The OSC needs to be calm, deliberate, collaborative, decisive, and bring out the best from all involved. They should seek to ensure personnel aren’t hindered by political interferences or other hobbling outside influences. They take responsibility for any setbacks and give credit to others for any positive activity.

By contrast an OSC who presents as tense, has poor communication skills, unwilling to listen to others opinions, looks to appease political powers, vacillates in decisions, knee-jerk reactions, and responds poorly to pressure (yells, insults, finger points, and blames others for any negative developments) makes an already horrendous situation all the more dangerous by creating an environment which severely hampers the ability of all to function at their best. The result is people have little confidence in the OSC as a leader.

So how can you apply this to your own organization? Here are three practical takeaways:

When a crisis ensues (whether it’s big or small), don’t stand by or stay silent. Either take the reins yourself or appoint someone to address the fears that are quickly spreading.

Douse the flames of panic and hysteria by helping people feel heard and understood. Let them know that you understand their fears. Address their questions and concerns. And be the shining example of the cool, calm and composed person you want them to be.

Let them know the specific actions that are being taken to combat or correct the issue. Even if it’s not something that can be fixed right away, people want to know that progress is being made and that things are heading in the right direction – even if it’s just an inch at a time. And remember – even if the situation is causing a lot of damage, it’s nothing compared to the damage we’ll cause ourselves if left to our own devices.

Until then, do your best to keep calm and move through the situation the way you’d like others to. And even though we can’t control what the future has in store, we CAN control how we act in the here and now.

Keep calm and carry on,
Adele Cehrs and Chip Massey

P.S. Need some help in handling a business crisis the correct way? Want to have the right processes in place in case it ever happens?

Chip and I are no strangers to high stakes situations and we’ll be more than happy to coast you through even the biggest crises so that your organization never goes flying off the rails (as opposed to many businesses that don’t have a plan in place).
Simply click here to contact us and we’ll be happy to help however we can.