When Silence Is NOT Golden — Dr Thor Teong Gee & June Choon

By CodeBlue | 24 March 2020

Leaders and organisations are putting lives at risk by downplaying all forms of uncertainty, particularly on risk of infection.

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The Covid-19 outbreak is a global human crisis with an equally severe impact on organisations.

With common elements of a crisis such as threat to the organization, the element of surprise, and a short decision time — leaders and employers need to face questions that they may not even have the answers.

Even if there are, answers are often elusive and rumours spread faster than the infection causing unrest to soar.

This is a time when direct and early communications are more important than ever because aside from ensuring the safety of employees, the handling of this crisis at the organisational level is a call for responsibility and solidarity as the country fights Covid-19.

Sharing information in real-time, even if the extent of the problem is not yet fully understood, being transparent and stepping up on vigilance will go a long way towards establishing trust and credibility.

Leaders and organisations are putting lives at risk by downplaying all forms of uncertainty, particularly on risk of infection. In light of this outbreak, silence is NOT always golden.

Clearly, a crisis at the global or national level becomes very different and real when an organisation plunges to the centre of a crisis.

How organisations respond and communicate during the crisis are crucial in swinging the final outcome. In 1982, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol, the painkiller that was Johnson & Johnson’s best-selling product.

Market experts predicted that the Tylenol brand would never be able to recover from the damage. Within two months, in its tamper-proof packaging, Tylenol was headed back to the market.

One year later, its market share of the $1.2 billion analgesic market, climbed back to 30 per cent from 7 per cent (from 37 per cent) following the sabotage. What set Johnson & Johnson apart in handling of the crisis from other pharmaceutical organisations?

The reasons were obvious – 1) consumers came first and 2) effective communication.

Without delay, it recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from the market and offered free replacement product in the safer tablet form.

National alert urging consumers to stop taking Tylenol products was issued and toll-free numbers for consumers were set-up.

The organisation’s chair, James Burke’s leadership and transparency in responding to the Tylenol crisis made Johnson & Johnson the hero. His forthrightness in dealing with the media was widely commended.

Since then, the organisation established a set of best practices for communication during a crisis that basically entails speaking early, often, and directly with its consumers.

The Covid-19 crisis will be another game-changer in crisis management for leaders and organisations.

Honesty, transparency, accountability, and consistency form the core pillars of crisis communication.

Simply put, it is about doing what you are saying, while also saying what you are doing.

*Dr Thor Teong Gee is a medical doctor and senior lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Monash University Malaysia.

*June Choon, PhD, is a pharmacist, lecturer and researcher in Health Economics at the School of Pharmacy, Monash University Malaysia.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.
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