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Jan Gooding: What risks do we expect people to take?

19 Feb 2020  |  Jan Gooding 
Jan Gooding: What risks do we expect people to take?

Amid growing concerns over the spread of coronavirus, Jan Gooding considers the balancing act between ensuring the safety of staff and protecting business needs

Last week Andrew Marr interviewed Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to UK, about the coronavirus pandemic. He put to him the problems being felt in the supply chain of Apple, the car and fashion industries by asking, ‘When will the factories re-open?’. I couldn’t help wondering whether a shortage of iPhones was high on people’s list of priorities.

Later that same day I saw a package on BBC showing a food delivery being made to the reporter (who wasn’t wearing a face mask) in Wuhan, with a note showing the body temperature of the cook, food packer and dispatch driver as a way of offering customer reassurance. I wondered whether I would be satisfied with that.

Closer to home

Then I heard about a friend who was despairing because after months of work to curate a major global tech conference in Barcelona, they were faced with a wave of major corporates pulling out.

These companies were concerned by the high number of delegates who would be travelling from Asia and didn’t want to put their staff at risk. I wondered what I would do facing the same situation.

Liu Xiaoming urged viewers not to panic

He offered reassuring statistics about 2% fatality rates (which of course means 98% recover, but that’s not probably what people hear) and the belief of the Chinese government that the virus was controllable. He asserted that the negative impact on the Chinese economy and production would be temporary and short term.

Peter Frankopan in the Sunday Times went further, writing that ‘pandemic diseases are not always bad for an economy. After the awful human suffering has come to an end, economies not only usually bounce back, but do so forcefully’.

How does a company avoid the risk of overreaction?

The difficulty is that this ‘big picture’ and rational stuff is only helpful up to a point. No business would want to be accused of panic or setting off a chain of events that led to more harm than was necessary to their own business or the broader economy.

And yet, too strong a response has an impact output which may take a longer time to recover from than was strictly necessary.

And yet, they may not react strongly enough?

The fact is that companies have a duty of care towards their customers and people, and are required to proactively evaluate the risks to their health and safety.

Whilst banning travel, quarantining and restricting the movement of people can be done at a government level, at a company level there may be a reluctance to be quite so draconian.

Ensuring staff are well informed and able to make a decision based on their own personal risk appetite, rather than the company deciding for them with blanket advice, is also a tricky path to tread.

How do any of us weigh up the pros and cons?

Given the current circumstances, what are managers likely to be considering and how would any of us go about developing a policy?

When I was at Aviva, risk was the heart of our business. As a result, the company was highly disciplined with regard to business continuity plans. Teams across functions rehearsed their response to various risk scenarios, right up to board level.

I am sure there is a policy that relates to a major health incident such as a pandemic outbreak of severe flu. It will offer a blueprint of previously discussed stages of response with pre-determined trigger points to activate different stages of response.

Planning in advance pays dividends

No doubt Aviva dusted their policy off and reviewed it some weeks ago. I noticed that on February 4 they posted a message on their website under the heading ‘Coronavirus advice for our travel insurance customers’.

The communication helpfully explains what is and isn’t covered if you travel or are already in China and explains the implications for contracting the virus in another country. It is careful to refer to FCO advice with regard to the level of danger.

What is not visible is the advice being given to their staff in China or elsewhere. I imagine staff will be encouraged to work from home, consult their local manager before travelling or attending conferences, and are minimising direct contact with colleagues in the same department.

Evidence-based decisions

In these circumstances we naturally seek the view and advice of our government bodies and organisations such as The World Health Organisation. The UK government has already launched a public health campaign in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus following confirmation of the first British cases of the deadly disease. The media has a vital role to play in giving us all easy access to current information and advice.

Dampening down rumours

Ads informing people on how to protect themselves have appeared on social media, in newspapers and on the radio as part of efforts to reassure the public over the outbreak. But there is also the inevitable disinformation and unhelpful speculation.

Facebook claims it will remove false claims, conspiracy theories and rumours which are already appearing, such as ‘drinking bleach may be a possible cure’.

Policy making will be dynamic

Any member of staff would want to know that policy was being based on the very latest intelligence from credible sources. And that there was a sense of constant review as the situation developed. So, managers will have to decide how often to revisit the subject and adapt their approach.

Emotions will come into it

However rational we all want to be, it’s impossible to ignore how people are feeling. And each of us will have a very different risk appetite about this kind of health scare. Some will rely on their employer telling them what to do, others would prefer the freedom to make up their own mind.

As a manager I would not feel able to discourage a team member, who was genuinely fearful, from being more cautious than the company position at the time. The responsibility for making the wrong call is too great.

There can be a dark side to fear

The Sun ran a story that Royal Caribbean has simply banned all Chinese nationals from their cruise ships. That kind of discrimination by a company is no doubt likely to have brand reputation repercussions in the future. They clearly had a preference for reassuring their customers and staff that they had theoretically reduced the risk of exposure to the virus despite causing offense to their Chinese customers.

Singling out anyone who is Chinese and refusing to serve them as a customer in this way makes me uncomfortable. Avoiding Asian people at meetings and events, or in the provision of services, starts to slip into racism.

As the number of coronavirus cases continue to grow, so do concerns of racist vitriol and stereotyping against people of Asian descent. At the time of writing four racist incidents relating to the coronavirus outbreak are being investigated by police in or around York.

Symbolic of acts of mitigation

We have seen a lot of people wearing masks. I am told they are more effective at preventing the spread by inhibiting coughing than they are at protecting people from picking up the virus. But it probably makes people feel reassured on some level that they have done something to try and purify the air they breathe.

Having seen the medical professionals dressed head to toe in contamination suits to protect themselves, I have to say I am sceptical about the value of these masks. They look like a fig leaf in comparison to body suits.

It’s easier to accommodate short term self-quarantining

Unlike the days of the Black Death, it is possible to work from home. To get food delivered and service many customers online or on the phone. At least for a couple of weeks to help slow down the spread of the disease.

The crunch will come when the service being offered to customers is being severely compromised, or colleagues can’t get their work done. Weighing up the economic costs versus the safety issues is certainly a tricky balancing act.


Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), LGBT equality charity Stonewall, and the president of the Market Research Society. She writes for Mediatel News each month.

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08 Jul 2020 

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