"Jaws": A Risk Communications Primer?

Tom Murphy has pointed to an interesting article on the PR challenges faced by US beef producers, now that a case of BSE has been discovered. In June 2003, The Toronto Star's entertainment critic drew an amusing, but insightful, comparison between the recent outbreaks of BSE, West Nile and SARS and Steven Spielberg's thriller Jaws:

The first death is swift, savage and out of the blue. Public officials blame it on a fluke. They predict a speedy and inexpensive resolution. When more deaths occur, the officials shift to denial and damage control. They're concerned about bad publicity, how it will hurt tourism and trade. The menace suddenly halts and the officials rejoice: "Everything will soon be back to normal," they say. Then the deaths start happening again ...

Sound familiar? The above, in a nutshell, is how the SARS epidemic has progressed in its three-month Toronto rampage. Parallels can be drawn with the mad cow and West Nile diseases.

It also sounds a lot like a classic Hollywood thriller: Jaws. And we can learn something from it ...

Don't assume it's an easily solved problem: The SARS, mad cow and West Nile crises all started with single cases, and in each instance, officials laboured to ease public fears of a mass outbreak. ... Good intentions, perhaps, but as in the case of the Amity shark, pretending there's a quick fix can prove fatal.

Don't put salesmanship ahead of safety: "I was acting in the town's best interests," said Amity Mayor Vaughan, sounding an awful lot like the politicians who have fiddled while Toronto burned ... Politicians need to do more to solve the long-term health care crisis in Ontario than simply pose for photo ops eating Chinese food and steak dinners.

Don't be cheap: Sea salt Quint demands $10,000 to hook the killer shark, and Amity officials flinch and hedge. "You gotta make up your minds," he tells them. "Do you wanna stay alive and ante up, or do you want to play it cheap and be on welfare the whole winter?" ... Going cheap on health care has made coping with epidemics all the more difficult.

Don't assume it's over: As angry nurses told the Star, Toronto's second major SARS outbreak can be blamed on senior health officials and politicians who refused to accept the possibility of resurgence by the disease. So eager were the suits to get back to business as usual, they refused to acknowledge that a second shark was silently waiting.

Get ready for the big one: "You're gonna need a bigger boat," Chief Brody tells Quint when he first sees how large the great white shark really is. Good advice for the next big disease to come our way, say Ebola or anthrax. We might look back and think of SARS, mad cow and West Nile as small threats. A bigger health care boat may well be needed.

The UK held an extensive enquiry into the BSE outbreak in the '90s. The Food Standards Agency, which was created as result, summarized the enquiry's findings as:

� There was too much secrecy � There was too much unjustified reassurance � The Government needs to be more open with the public � It is important to acknowledge and deal with uncertainty

Startling similarities, eh?