Be careful not to play on people’s fears

10th March 2020

As the first confirmed case of coronavirus was announced yesterday in Guernsey, islanders switched it up a gear. Queues formed in Boot’s as shoppers filled their baskets with handwash, paracetamol and flu relief. Workers were apparently sent home from one of the island’s biggest private banks so that it could be deep cleaned, and Grammar School parents received an email confirming that the confirmed case was a parent with a child at the school. The message is clear – not to panic and not to panic buy. Clearly few are heeding that advice, and to be fair it’s understandable.

One thing is for sure – news travels faster than it ever has before. Social media means that something you might at one time have read about the next day in the press, or heard on the radio on the way home, is now right there on your screen. Within minutes of the announcement by Public Health, the pharmacy in Boot’s was filled with town workers on their lunch break grabbing cold and flu remedies, handwash, tissues, thermometers, more handwash. You get the picture.

It’s been widely reported that toilet rolls and hand sanitiser are in short supply across the UK. Some small bottles of Carex have been seen on eBay for as much as £45, as people cash in on public fear. Scammers never let a good crisis go to waste – as we saw this only last week with the announcement that Flybe had gone under. Hackers were quick to send out fake text messages pretending to be banks offering help for those who had flights booked with the airline.

But in the business world at what point does trying to get a bit of good PR out of a bad situation cross the line? Putting out branded hand sanitisers in large reception areas, restaurants or entertainment complexes is probably not a bad idea, it’s public-spirited and could potentially help stop the spread. But a cleaning company advertising its services to ‘help stop you getting coronavirus’ might be going a bit far. Playing on people’s emotions and fears can go one of two ways – but invariably those who try to gain from this sort of situation end up with egg on their faces. If you’re in the retail or services business, think twice before cashing in on the chaos. The boost for business may be short-lived but a reputation takes much longer to claw back.

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