Truth, not spin, best remedy for SARS messages in Asia

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Not until there are masks in the Mall of America will we in the United States really comprehend how scary the SARS virus continues to be in some parts of the world-and what a threat it represents to the global economy.

Yes, SARS is my subject again. But this space concerns itself, in part, with things that matter but that don't always appear to matter here yet. SARS, thankfully for us, continues to be someone else's problem. For now.

It's curious, then, that it took something as ostensibly trivial as the Chinese ad industry delegation withdrawing from the Cannes International Advertising Festival to make SARS headline news in the U.S. marketing press. SARS really is the best example in recent years of the "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" syndrome.

SARS is not out of sight in Hong Kong, of course, where Burson-Marsteller was recently hired to conduct a crisis-management project (a touch late, one might argue). Neither is SARS out of sight on worldwide CEO balance sheets. As a result, the CEOs have been busy warning analysts that-at the very least-it is impossible to say yet what the full extent of the damage to this year's earnings will be.

Having written previously that there was little marketers can do to improve the situation until politicians get the disease under control, it has since become apparent that the marketing initiative will be almost as important as the containment exercise.

There are already moves afoot in Hong Kong (where one agency chief tells me that on some days only 20% of the staff turns up for work) to discourage citizens from wearing their hospital face masks. This is not for the rational reason (the masks do not work) but for the emotional reason (the masks send out the "wrong signal").

This, of course, makes one wonder what "signal" a victim sends out lying in a hospital bed in a SARS-ridden hospital, especially while-as happened in China this past week-there are riots at hospital gates just because there were patients with SARS within.

Politicians, not for the first time, have been found wanting-not just in their initial response to the crisis but in their inability to display leadership in helping to pull their nations out of it. (Singapore Prime Minister Chok Tong Goh is an exception. The quarantine measures there may have been draconian, but he did display leadership.)

The most shameless political spin-doctoring during a public-health scare that I can recall took place in the United Kingdom. The then U.K. agriculture secretary, one John Gummer, forced his bemused young daughter to eat a hamburger made from British beef at the height of the mad-cow disease frenzy when the then U.K. government was still in a "crisis?-what crisis?" mode. Would you put it past China's politicians to perform a similarly crass feat? Or to force beleaguered Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, into a similar stunt?

There is no way to persuade the rest of the world that SARS is under control until Asian governments persuade their own people. The way to do that is not through coercion or spin but through honest government. Then, and only then, can the marketing begin.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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