Self-quarantined

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

In 1918, accurate information about the extent of the flu pandemic was often kept under lockdown.

During the influenza pandemic of 1918, April was a relatively uneventful month. But given the current circumstances, it seems a good idea to interrupt our regularly scheduled column to look at this event from a PR perspective.

The first thing to note is that the crisis was wrongly blamed on another country: that pandemic was often called “the Spanish flu.” But World War I was going on, and reports of the damage being done by the flu might encourage one’s enemies and discourage morale.

So the major countries involved in the war (including the U.S.) withheld information on the extent of the flu. As the Smithsonian explained, “By contrast, neutral Spain had no need to keep the flu under wraps. That created the false impression that Spain was bearing the brunt of the disease.”

If only officials had kept the virus under wraps as carefully as they did information. The New York Times, for example, ran a story quoting the city’s health commissioner. The headline: “Influenza epidemic not expected here.” The headline for an interview with U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue was, “Advises on Mild ‘Flu.’ ”And the headline in an Iowa paper read, “Iowa physicians say epidemic is old-fashioned influenza, nothing more.”

Historian John M. Barry, author of, “The Great Influenza,” noted that President Wilson went one step further, creating the dubiously named Committee for Public Information. As the group’s founder explained, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value.” Which is why it was not called the Committee for Truthful Public Information.

Fortunately, there were many efforts to accurately educate citizens. For example, The Wisconsin State Journal reported on the “woeful shortage” of medical staff, adding that local pastors were asking people to stay at home. And the Seattle Times ran blurbs explaining flu safety precautions and symptoms on its front page. Above the masthead.

But with so many conflicting messages, conflicting responses were inevitable, often with tragic results. Never was this more evident than in Philadelphia.

In September, the city decided to hold a massive parade for war bonds. Medical and public officials both objected to the idea, but their concerns were repressed by higher-ranking officials. The day after the event, the Philadelphia Enquirer proudly reported, “Representatives of a great nation embattled take part in tremendously impressive pageant.” A few weeks later, the same paper reported 200,000 cases in the city, escalating deaths and an emergency hospital being built.

Some of the best information on the pandemic would not be available for another 20 years. Legendary author Katherine Anne Porter was stricken with the flu, and became so sick that her obituary was prepared. Porter survived, and her 1939 novel, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is a fictionalized account of her experience living – and almost dying – at that time. One historian who later wrote about the pandemic dedicated his book to Porter.

Hopefully, this pandemic will be kinder to us than the first crisis (although the 1918 crisis saw far more deaths in the fall than the spring.) Whatever happens, it’s worth keeping in mind the important role PR pros can plan. As a professor from Middle Tennessee observed, “there are numerous lessons to be learned [from 1918] about perception management, rumor control, and public belief about what is and is not happening.”

Author John M. Barry was more blunt. “The biggest lesson from the 1918 pandemic is clearly to tell the truth,” he said. “People can deal with the truth. It’s the unknown that’s much scarier.”

May all of you – and the truth – stay safe.

COVID-19 Update

#FWPRSA: Due to the latest COVID-19 developments, the following changes have been made to the chapter’s upcoming events:

• March 19: GFW PRSA Health Care Special Interest Group meeting – postponed

• March 26: PR After Dark Happy Hour – postponed

• April 1: PRSA April luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

• May 6: PRSA May Luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

We are thinking of you & your teams and feel that keeping this group of PR professionals in contact will be beneficial as we all navigate this unprecedented time.