NEW YORK—Ketchum has become the latest international public relations firm to create a task force focused on the business communications issues arising from the spread of avian flu. The firm has brought together a team of crisis and issues management and healthcare specialists with expertise in risk communication, preparedness planning, food safety, and public health policy.
According to Tom Barritt, global director of Ketchum’s issues and crisis network, crisis planning for avian influenza requires breaking down the barriers that often exist in corporations between departments and across regions. The type of miscommunication often encountered in day-to-day business operations would intensify in a pandemic.
“While avian flu is first and foremost an important health crisis, a key secondary effect is the impact on global business,” the firm says. “Avian influenza differs dramatically from past health threats, such as SARS, in the potential for a pandemic outbreak to affect vast portions of the global population and dramatically harm worldwide business and economy. The impact of a pandemic on the corporate world could be massive. In extreme situations, factories, shops and service centers could be closed while entire countries are placed under quarantine allowing for no imports or exports and closing stock exchanges.”
The firm says companies should:
• Coordinate fully between crisis response planning and business continuity.
• Support planning with strategic communications outreach to critical audiences such as employees, investors, customers and media.
• Provide information in a controlled, factual and instructive manner to decrease fear and uncertainty.
• Conduct vulnerability assessments to evaluate every corporate system that could be affected.
• Develop business recovery options and crisis response plans for each subsidiary business or system against all pandemic scenarios.
• Quick-service restaurants and food companies should enact safeguards to ensure maximum level of protection for consumers and employees.
• Integrate company emergency preparedness plans with appropriate government organizations to understand how agencies will respond.
International public relations agencies Hill & Knowlton and Edelman both launched practices focused on avian flu in December of last year.
The Ketchum announcement comes as a Watson Wyatt survey reveals considerable corporate interest in preparing for an epidemic. The survey of 90 multinational companies conducted within the last 60 days found the greatest level of concern from those operating in the Asia-Pacific region, where the majority of bird flu deaths among humans have occurred
About half (48 percent) of companies operating in the United States said they are considering crisis response plans, although only 15 percent said they have plans in place. The numbers were slightly lower in Europe, where 11 percent say they have plans set to deal with an outbreak and 47 percent said they were considering such programs.