4. The biggest lesson from last century’s influenza pandemic is that the government must tell—not simply manage—the truth.

In 1918, fear devastated society every bit as much as the disease itself. The government and the media attempted to mitigate fears by withholding the truth—which had just the opposite effect. Fears amplified in the absence of information.

Anyone who’s seen a horror movie knows that it is the unknown that creates fear. It’s the mystery that haunts us. We wonder what that thing is lurking in the shadows, and what it might do to us. As soon as the villain or the monster comes into the light, and we see it for what it is, it’s not nearly as horrifying. It might be a force to be taken seriously, but fear is localized in the thing itself. We know what it is and what it isn’t, what it is and isn’t capable of doing to us. Citizens can act and prepare accordingly.

A common term in public relations is “risk communication.” Risk communication operates on the premise that pandemonium will break out if the truth isn’t unveiled delicately, partially and then more gradually. The assumption is that the public can’t handle it. Businesses do this; so does the government. But truth isn’t a thing to be managed—it’s something to be told. Telling the truth and telling it fully doesn’t amplify hysteria—it mitigates it.

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