Going Viral

This isn't our first pandemic. But we can take heart in what is coming out of it.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” — Charles Darwin, 1871

There was once a dreaded statement / request heard in marketing conference rooms across the corporate world:

“We need a viral video!”

Now it's more likely to be:

“We need to cancel our conference or event sponsorship because of coronavirus!”

In each case, it’s a reactionary statement, uttered after built-up frustration or emotion has overtaken other thought processes.

But the two approaches differ in one key area: the level of considered thought that went into each.

With the viral video, it’s a GMOOT request (“get me one of those!”) that’s trying to satisfy the lust for a shiny object. It’s the clarion call of the harried executive, looking for a quick win.

It misses the point that most viral videos are more luck than anything else, and comes across more like a marketing get-rich-quick scheme. You can’t shortcut the hard work that goes into developing a community that cares about you.

With the many events that have been canceled, there's been a considerable amount of hand-wringing that’s gone into the decisions around events like SXSW. But these hard decisions have been made precisely because we care about the communities we"‘ve developed.

As the United States scrambles to update its emergency response to the virus, disruption will be the norm in the weeks ahead. It will affect business, school, and daily life.

If you follow how viruses spread online versus how they spread in real life, there’s a startling number of parallels there. Seth Godin laid out a few:

  • They’re contagious;

  • They spread when you don’t know if you have the disease;

  • There’s a difference between a virus’s impact and its virality; and others.

That last point can be visually understood in this illustration from the New York Times:

The reaction we’ve seen has spanned the spectrum: from the panic-induced runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer (isn’t it amazing how we’ve suddenly learned the importance of hand-washing?) to the skeptics who view this as a media hoax (impressive that the media has been able to run up the death toll and quarantine multiple countries).

The panic buying isn't helping, nor is the head-in-the-sand approach.

COVID-19 doesn’t care about your fears and it doesn’t respond to angry tweets or ignorance. It just keeps doing its thing.

If anything, at this time, what’s more harmful than an epidemic is an infodemic: when unreliable information spreads far and wide. One of the most important things you can do is to seek out reliable sources of information. [See below for a section of resources.]

But it’s coming. This story about lily pads illustrates how it seems like nothing for a while, then hits all at once.

The strongest weapon against a pandemic is the truth.

The fact is, we’re not used to this kind of upheaval because we’ve been protected from such disturbances in recent history. But it hasn’t always been the case.

In his History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides chronicled the plague that hit Athens in 430 B.C., wiping out one-third of the city. Without a recognized treatment, there was "utter hopelessness" that led to people losing “their powers of resistance.”

In those days, attending physicians knew they could be overruled by the chief resident: death.

“In the face of the inevitable defeat, nobody was in the business of performing miracles; what they did perform, the patients as well as the doctors, were the acts of kindness tempered with courage, knowing…that the strength to confront suffering was to be found in the thought that you will not die because you are sick but because you are alive.” (“The God Machine”—Lewis Lapham, 2009)

Daniel Defoe wrote a fictionalized account in A Journal of the Plague Year about London’s famous bout with the Black Death in 1665. He noted cancellations of “Plays, Bear Baitings, games, singing of Ballads, Bucker play, or such like causes of Assemblies of People, be utterly prohibited.” Londoners also practiced quarantines (called “Sequestration of the Sick”):

“As soon as any Man shall be found…to be sick of the Plague, he shall the same Night be sequestered in the same House, and in case he be so sequestered, then, though he afterward die not, the House wherein he sickened should be shut up for a month.”

The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic was the most severe spread of disease in recent history, with death estimates ranging as high as 50 million worldwide. To give you a sense of relativity, that’s more deaths than WWI and WWII combined.

Watching the 1918 flu from a ship deck in Willa Cather’s novel One of Ours, we realize how epidemics don't care what our priorities are. Such diseases are “recognized…as an ultimate intervention, an unpredictable factor that reverses plans and disrupts missions.”

Then, just as today, the virus doesn’t care about your opinions. It only responds to action.

 “A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream that will end.” — Albert Camus, 1947

Public health, epidemiology, and medicine have made significant advances in the last century alone, as has our understanding of them. But there's still a sense of the unknown about an epidemic, which gives rise to fear. (Now would be a good time to review our essay on fear from a few weeks ago.)

When Fear Works and When It Doesn't

What’s been fascinating to observe during this time is the leadership, creativity, and community-minded collaboration that's been happening from various individuals and entities.

For example, we’ve seen companies like Chipotle and Trader Joe’s offering unlimited paid time off and parental leave to its employees, who as hourly workers, are among the most at-risk financially. They need to be healthy in order to work.

The tech sphere has been pitching in as well: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter all pledged to keep paying hourly workers, even if they were told to stay home during the outbreak.

A number of airlines stepped up to ease their rebooking policies and more. Delta in particular gave us a masterclass in executive communication, crisis communication and customer experience with CEO Ed Bastian's heartfelt and thorough letter. In it, he spoke of Delta’s decade-long preparation, its cleaning process, and filtration system, in addition to other steps being taken for public peace of mind.

Crisis communication principles

As far as crisis communications go during a time like this, there are a few essentials to remember:

  1. Always rely on credible sources. Whether looking for or providing information, be sure you have information that makes you more trusted.

  2. Be honest. It's okay to be vulnerable in this time; people will understand. Honesty will help keep rumors to a minimum and build a sense of sympathy with and from your audience.

  3. Make recommendations that matter. People need reassurance and they need to be kept from more harm. Reliable information and meaningful action can help them from doing more damage.

  4. Use experts to share information. The last thing people need is an amateur mouthing off like they know everything. Let the adults in the room do their thing.

  5. Consistency of messaging. If multiple spokespeople are saying different things, it's going to hurt your plan. Keep the messaging simple and consistent.

Drastic measures are necessary as we brace for this together. Such steps may feel like overreaction, but our collective action will help keep the number of cases from spiking and overwhelming our system.

Just as the medical professionals who bravely show up at work with fortitude and compassion in times like these, all of us — leaders in particular — have the chance to lead with empathy.

We should perform acts of kindness tempered with courage.

Every day.


Information is our best ally. In addition to corporate responses, individuals have stepped up.

Please remember: practice social distancing and frequent and thorough hand washing.

Timely: Present Tense

“Disease is an experience of so-called mortal mind. It is fear made manifest on the body.” — Mary Baker Eddy, 1875

There are so many events being canceled or rescheduled, it’s hard to keep track. Sarah Evans is keeping a running list in this Google Doc. And the slick Is It Canceled Yet? is a quick reference.

Jeremiah Owyang is keeping track of events that are going digital in response to social distancing. If you know of some, let him know.

And I have a list of companies that are contributing to the social good by taking extraordinary steps.

We should have seen the coronavirus coming. In fact, a number of entities — including Johns Hopkins — ran a high-level pandemic simulation, called Event 201. To disastrous effects. (Axios) Spoiler alert: here’s what happened:

  • Governments agonized about whether to ban public gatherings and block travel from infected areas.

  • Misinformation — accidental and deliberate — spread over social media, and participants in the exercise struggled to control messaging.

  • The economic effects of attempts to control the pandemic were as devastating as the disease itself, a dilemma compounded by the fact that participants had to make vital decisions with imperfect information about the virus—just as officials must do today.

The final results of the Event 201 simulation were startling: 65 million people died in the exercise.

Timeless: For the Curious Mind

“Life is an incurable disease.” — Abraham Cowley, 1656

“[H]andwashing is often trivialized, as anyone who has witnessed somebody skip past the sinks after visiting a public restroom knows. It was not until the mid-twentieth century…that the importance of daily manual hygiene spread beyond hospitals.” Dirty War — personal front lines on germ warfare. (Lapham’s Quarterly)

On April 12, 1955, Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk responded. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Why didn't Jonas Salk patent his polio vaccine? (Slate)

How Pandemics Change History: "The main part of preparedness to face these events is that we need as human beings to realize that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere." We're all in this together. Denying it isn't going to help anyone. (The New Yorker)

A Life Replete with Thankfulness

“I enjoy my convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worth while.” — George Bernard Shaw

I’m grateful for recently overcoming a respiratory infection. While I was recuperating, I had some time to reflect, when I came across this quote: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” A good reminder from Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.

It’s a variation on “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

Recommended Listening / Reading

“The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals.” —Sir William Osler, 1925

This week, rather than a book and a podcast, I have two books to recommend. The reason for each ought to be apparent.

Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present by Frank M. Snowden looks at how mass infectious outbreaks have shaped society, from the Black Death to today. Diseases have not only influenced medical science and public health, but also transformed the arts, religion, intellectual history, and warfare.

“Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”

Nero's reign ended in 68, but not before he left an overwhelmingly negative impression on the Roman people. Although he was a populist, he was known for tyranny and extravagance, excessively spending publicly and privately. The historian Tacitus said that the Roman people found him to be compulsive and corrupt. When Rome burned, he seized the opportunity to blame the Christians for the fire, and burned them alive, motivated apparently not by justice but by cruelty. Miram T. Griffin's Nero: The End of a Dynasty is an analysis of the reasons for Nero's collapse under the pressure of his role as emperor.

What else is influencing me? You can check out my sources of inspiration on my site or in the Timeless and Timely Flipboard magazine I curate.

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