Get it and you’ll die!

Ebola team
Situation: There is a virus that is deadly to 60% – 90% of the people infected with it. It spreads quickly and becomes transmittable before there are serious signs of infection. The virus is spread through bodily fluids which means those caring for the sick are most likely to get it (i.e. parents, close friends and family). The incubation period is long enough that most people do not realize they are spreading an outbreak. The rules to prevent the outbreak fly in the face of core cultural values. The tension between the rules and upholding ingrained culture has sparked violence, perpetuating fear and the breakdown of societal norms and economic support. Social stigmatism has caused the carriers of the virus to deny being sick because the fear of rejection for their whole family. The social rejection means complete isolation and possible starvation for anyone who is associated with the virus, even if they are not sick. Fear has polarized people’s opinions. Some deny the existence of the virus and say it is a ploy to manipulate people. Others say it is real and are fighting a seemingly impossible battle against it. The clashes between the two viewpoints have proven to be violent and at time deadly.
Needed marketing solution: Communities need to believe the virus is real and take action through preventative measures and getting those infected to healthcare as early as possible. There needs to be support in communities so that quarantines are not the same as rejection.
I do not often associate marketing with humanitarian crisis, but the basic concept of marketing is motivating people to take action in a direction you or the organization finds favorable. This is exactly what is needed to help solve the Ebola crisis. The difference is not measured in millions of dollars profit, but in thousands of lives saved. The stakes are very high.
Earlier this semester my 541 section instructor, Dr. Nithya Muthuswamy, pointed me to the possibility of utilizing EPPM (Extended Parallel Processing Model) in communications during such a crisis. The theory, in very rough summary, deals with the tension between fear and hope. Motivating people to action is the goal and fear of the consequences is a great motivator. Yet in a situation of apparent hopelessness, the best methods for creating fearful awareness can perpetuate despair and plunge communities into even greater crisis. EPPM offers a solution in proposing the use of both awareness and hope.
The New Yorker ran an article titled, Ebola and the Culture Makers. In this article they highlight the use of EPPM as a strategy to motivate people to move toward help even if the chances of recovery are slim. The author writes: In Liberia, Jobbins told me, his local colleagues faced an initial wave of government sloganeering that amounted to “Ebola is real—if you get it, you’ll die!” The campaign, he said, sent “a terrible message, especially in a war-affected population where there is already so much fatalism.” The group offered up an alternative, as Jobbins remembers it: “How about, ‘Ebola is real, and if you seek treatment you have a fifty-per-cent chance of recovery?’ ” He added, “You have to hit that sweet spot of treating it seriously enough that people listen and act, but not so seriously that people become fatalistic.”
The article goes on to provide many different examples of ways the message is being spread. They are using platforms like soap operas (message placement through characters), trusted community members (peer influence), and musicians (pop culture). These are not areas I automatically think of when I think of crisis communication. There are also more traditional educational and community relief efforts being launched through partnering with religious organizations and leaders.
Although these channels have tremendous potential to shape the cultures of their communities, it has to be paired with hope. Without hope, there is no reason to act in a positive way. So fear and hope become the easily overlooked but natural combination to market action in crisis.
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5 Responses to Get it and you’ll die!

  1. Anamaria says:

    Hi Vern,

    Excellent post. As a health care public relations practitioner, I agree that Ebola is in serious need of a strategic communication plan. There are multiple concerns as you’ve identified… one thing you didn’t mention are the nursing unions and their role in sensationalizing Ebola in the US. This just goes to show that there are many different agendas at play and that there are multiple sources for misinformation that need to be countered. Unfortunately it seems to me that not enough is known about Ebola for an agency to step up and take the helm. Look back at the early days of Aids/HIV. that’s what we’re experiencing with Ebola. Misinformation. Hysteria. Finger pointing. Fear. Marginalization.

    The problem here is… who should lead the communication charge? The CDC? Ebola is an international concern. It seems to me there is a need for a private non-profit organization to step up and help this cause. I just hope for all of our sakes that Ebola can be controlled at the source of origin and that aid will be provided to help those in Africa and to prevent the spread of Ebola. We as Americans can’t be so self-centered to be only concerned when it spreads to the USA. I can only imagine what those in Africa were thinking when we went into hysterics about three cases when their death toll has been rising. How insensitive of us as a culture. At that time, I felt ashamed of our media for being insensitive enough to document the reunion of a Texas nurse with her dog while those in Africa who have lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and precious children.

  2. Nicholette says:

    Wow, wow, wow- great post, Verne.
    I am very removed from the health care industry professionally speaking, so it never occurred to me that crisis marketing was (or could be) a reality. Fear is a paralyzing emotion, and I can see how an epidemic such as ebola could automatically cause people to think catastrophically. Your “glass half full” example of how Liberia adjusted their message to, “ebola is real and if you treat it, you have a 50% chance of recovery,” seems to address the severity of the situation, while concurrently providing hope to the community.

    Even more interesting about your post, is the revelation that they are leveraging pop culture and TV placement to spread this message! I think that this is amazing! So often, we view marketing campaigns as a vehicle to sell the viewer something tangible (a car, cereal, new shoes). However, selling hope is so much more powerful and it has the potential to save lives. I hope they continue to do this, that it destigmatizes the disease, and ultimately causes people to seek the treatment that they need early on. Now if only there was an agency to lead a similar effort in the US… Great post!

  3. Dinah Chen says:

    Hi Verne,

    I love your post. How to apply commercial marketing strategies to the non-profit organizations is one of my long-time interests. But here I wanna make a little stretch from the post since this is the first thing that comes to me when I read your post. I remember few weeks ago when I was going through an internship interview for a non-profit educational institution, one of the questions they asked me was, “how could you convince people to act out for a charitable/ social issue?” In other words, how do you persuade people to stand up for things that don’t seem to instantly beneficial? My answer to this question was, is, and will still be, “build the connection.” Maybe that’s why so many non-profits dedicate so hard to appeal to patrons through an emotional way. Although people are born good (in my opinion), we do have a surprisingly high tendency to turn blind eye on what we perceive is non-relevant. It’s a easy math. A neighbor in the community who constantly passes by is infected by the virus will be far more powerful than the numbers and even TV footage from a remote continent.

  4. Liza Vee says:

    Verne – this is an interesting post. While it is a delicate situation, it is necessary to have some sort of communications strategy for it, not necessarily marketing (as I think marketing deals with monetary drivers), but of public relations (as it deals more with communicating out to society and non-monetary drivers). I do agree with you — if the campaign focuses on the positive or with the hope, it will serve its purpose.

  5. Graham says:

    Interesting insights about the Ebola issue! I see the importance of communicating the message of hope but I wonder a presidential task force could have been appointed to deal with this issue so that communication was clearer. I tend to see beauracratic organizations as slow to move in a crisis and they often get it wrong as FEMA did when the levies busted in the gulf some time ago. But a fresh appointed task force can get on the scene fast and act quickly. This was a very thought provoking post – Great work!