Navigating the Fog of Crisis

Information Overload and Distorted Public Perceptions Add a Degree of Difficulty to Effective Crisis Response     

8/28/2020 – – Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz is credited with coining the phrase “the fog of war,” a challenging combat condition he described in On War, published in 1832:

“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”

A similar phenomenon occurs during a crisis. Cascading events, inconsistent information, intense media coverage and heightened public scrutiny create debilitating uncertainty and confusion. Embattled corporate leaders, much like battlefield generals, struggle to cut through the communication fog to guide their response. In order to make good decisions and formulate effective messages, they have to “scent out the truth.”

We, along with our elected officials, are dealing right now with the coronavirus crisis. We’re all at war with COVID-19, a deadly, dynamic enemy. Urgent decisions have to be made — day by day — by politicians, individuals and corporations regarding medical protocols, economic shutdowns, school closings, public events and government spending.

Making the best decisions in a crisis requires informed situational awareness. Unfortunately, a recently released Franklin Templeton–Gallup research report suggests that we’re fighting this war with a seriously flawed understanding of our enemy. Here’s what the survey found:

“Six months into this pandemic, Americans still dramatically misunderstand the risk of dying from COVID-19:

  • On average, Americans believe that people aged 55 and older account for just over half of total COVID-19 deaths; the actual figure is 92%.
  • Americans believe that people aged 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%.
  • Americans overestimate the risk of death from COVID-19 for people aged 24 and younger by a factor of 50; and they think the risk for people aged 65 and older is half of what it actually is (40% vs 80%).”

Fund manager Franklin Templeton, which commissioned the survey to better understand the investment environment, blamed the misperceptions on “partisanship and misinformation,” finding that:

  • People who get their information predominantly from social media have the most erroneous and distorted perception of risk.
  • Those who identify as Democrats tend to mistakenly overstate the risk of death from COVID-19 for younger people much more than Republicans.

Bad intelligence on the battlefield or in a corporate war room, overestimating or underestimating risks, can lead to bad decisions and prolong crises. Sending your children back to school is very frightening if you believe that people under 44 years of age account for 30 percent of COVID-19 deaths. How much more comfortable would parents and teachers be if they understood that the actual number is 2.7 percent?

Don’t underestimate the power of media and popular culture to skew public opinion. A survey conducted in 1975 by the U.S. nuclear power industry found that adult women living in the Midwest ranked “shark attack” among the five most likely ways they would die. Now, I don’t want to dismiss the risks of encountering a killer carp or terrifying trout, but there has never been a shark sighting in Omaha or Peoria. Never. Turns out the movie Jaws was released in the summer of 1975.

So, as you navigate the coronavirus crisis, follow Carl von Clausewitz’s admonition to see through the fog and “scent out the truth.” Companies embattled in crisis cannot rely only on social media chatter to guide their response, and neither should you. Develop more reliable, unbiased sources of intelligence you can count on in a crisis — when you need it most.

And if you find yourself swimming in a stream or lake in Iowa, stay close to shore!

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