Everyone is Panicking!

Barbara S. Reynolds
Crisis Communication Expert
Office of Communication
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In nearly every crisis situation, the media or a public official will claim that people are panicking. While most people agree that panic seldom happens, some antisocial behaviors or panic behavior does happen. So what conditions set the stage for panic? The condition most conducive to panic is not bad news; it is conflicting messages from those in authority.  People are the likeliest to panic (though still not all that likely) when they feel that they cannot trust what those in authority are telling them or when they feel misled or abandoned in dangerous situations. 

When authorities start hedging or hiding bad news in order to prevent panic, they are likely to exacerbate the risk of panic in the process. The antidote to the threat of panic is being as open with the public as possible, admitting the uncertainty, and taking steps to sustain or build trust. Don’t sugar-coat bad news.  Remember there is a truck load of bloggers and experts across the media spectrum ready to contradict you if you make the attempt to artificially inflate good news. Give the bad news straight up, give it in context, and then give people a range of actions that they can take to manage the bad thing they must face in the crisis.