The Myths of Panic

By: Jim Stanton

Let’s look at the myths of panic.  Before World War II, the British Ministry of War predicted “mass outbreaks of hysterical neurosis” would occur when bombing started. What happened in reality was the exact opposite. People banded together to save fellow human beings and showed remarkable acts of kindness. Time and time again, volunteers went into bombed out buildings to rescue people they didn’t know.

In April 1912, RMS Titanic sank in the icy waters off Newfoundland with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

With rare exception, the crew and passengers responded to the disaster in a calm and orderly manner. The “women and children first” protocol was generally followed when loading the lifeboats and most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard.

The Titanic’s Chaplin, Father Thomas Byles, spent his final moments alive reciting the rosary and other prayers, hearing confessions, and giving absolution to the dozens of people who huddled around him. As a “man of the cloth” he would have been entitled to a seat in the lifeboat but he chose to stay and minister to the passengers.

The band of Titanic is one of the most mysterious and legendary tales that comes from the ill-fated ocean liner. Titanic’s eight-member band, led by Wallace Hartley, assembled and played in the first-class lounge in an effort to keep everyone calm. As the ship continued to plunge, the band moved to the forward half of the boat deck, and continued playing even when their doom became apparent.

However, despite historical evidence to the contrary, the myths of panic still persist and go like this:

  1. People will become blank slates and roam aimlessly around in a state of shock.
  2. In the face of personal danger, people only think of themselves.
  3. People will revert to a barbaric state.
  4. People will cause mass hysteria with panic flight.
  5. Too much information will scare people and add to a sense of panic.
  6. Communities affected by a disaster will fall apart and never recover.
  7. Trained professionals will be first on the scene and are trained to manage chaos.
  8. People do not want to hear from elected officials due to mistrust.

Why do they persist? The source of creating these myths lies directly in the hands of popular videos, comic books, and movies. Hollywood loves nothing better than creating a gory zombie movie. Comic books and television networks outbid each other in producing fanciful series about “The Walking Dead,”  “Night of the Living Dead,” “Zombieland,” and “Red Neck Zombies,” to name a few.

When looked at closely in real world situations none of these myths are true.

Let’s examine each one. First, people will become blank slates and roam aimlessly around in a state of shock. The fact is most people become innovative problem-solvers in a crisis. A few examples include: The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 in which citizens formed bucket-brigades to attempt to quell the fires; travellers on the nearby highway rushed to the aid of survivors as they poured out of their crashed Air France plane at the Toronto airport in 2005; footage from the 1995 Oklahoma bomb explosion shows ordinary citizens helping the injured.

The myth that people are inherently selfish and will abandon others to take care of themselves has been proven to be false time and again. In fact, most people are altruistic and organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings. This was demonstrated recently at the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 where citizens can be seen in social media clips administering tourniquets, carrying the wounded, and comforting the injured. All of this was happening when no one knew if another bomb might explode.

When the New York World Trade Center was attacked in September 2001, rumours circulated that office workers died because they panicked and jammed the stairways. The reality was that, once again, people acted unselfishly and stopped to help others to evacuate to safety. Wheelchair-confined personnel waiting in refuge areas for firefighters to assist them were carried down 50 and more floors by ordinary citizens who refused to abandon them.

To address the myth that people revert to a barbaric state in times of crisis, consider was transpired during and after Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclone of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Stories emerged that people became “primal” and vicious and that gangs marauded, raped, and cannibalized folks in the Superdome. No evidence exists to show this happened. Yes, some looting did occur but it was mostly by hungry, desperate people. The overwhelming evidence shows that citizens helped each other in the days and hours before official first responders arrived.

A similar myth circulated about the danger of looting during the 2013 Alberta and Ontario floods. In fact, crime rates dropped and citizens formed community patrol groups to protect the evacuated and flooded areas.

A myth persists that people will panic if told too much. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln said, I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The important point is to bring them the real facts.” What Lincoln said a century and a half ago, holds true today. People respond calmly when they know the facts.

In the 1979 Three Mile Island, New York, nuclear meltdown, agencies were afraid to release information because they thought the public would panic. The facts show that 150,000 people self-evacuated spontaneously without incident. However, Hollywood produced a movie portraying chaos, rioting and panic – none of which was based in fact.

In speaking about the 2013 wild land fire in Labrador West, Labrador City Mayor Karen Oldford said, “I appreciated the constant communications updates via conventional media, as well as social media, and the use of the local HAM radio operators.  Due to our quick communications people were kept up-to-date with what was happening with the fire.”

When the cruise ship “Grandeur of the Seas” caught fire in May 2013, passengers commented, “The crew was in total control, told us what to do and there was no chaos. All passengers stayed calm.”

A myth also exists among many emergency managers and politicians who believe chaos will occur if they don’t have rigid control over the messaging that goes out to the public. The facts support that crises and disasters enhance solidarity and actually suppress conflict, especially in this age of social media.

These same officials are afraid that social media will spread fear and panic. Evidence shows the contrary. Social media allows people to see in real time what is really happening and, thereby, lessens uncertainty. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, become the “go-to places” for information in times of crisis.

During the Calgary floods in 2013, the number of Tweets and Facebook posts were staggering. The most-shared stories focused on community support, volunteerism and philanthropy.

The myth about trained professionals always being first on the scene is completely inaccurate. In the overwhelming majority of cases, ordinary citizens are the true first responders. They are the ones who do the initial triage and first aid, before police, paramedics and firefighters arrive.

The final myth I want to examine is the one that people do not want to hear from elected officials because of lack of trust. This is flat out wrong.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used social media, in particular Twitter, to reach out to Calgarians. Folks called him “Supermayor.” His Twitter account was the most popular site during the Calgary floods and he was re-elected Mayor with an overwhelming majority.

During the Labrador West fires in the summer of 2013 and serious power outages in 2014, the then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale failed to reach out to citizens early. In January 2014, she resigned.

What does all this myth-busting tell us?

First, we need to be aware of these myths and have a commitment to overcome them. Secondly, it is critical to remember that in times of uncertainty people want information about eight fundamentals, which I call the Stanton Method:

  1. What is really happening?
  2. How will this affect me?
  3. What are you doing?
  4. What do I need to do?
  5. Specific and detailed instructions.
  6. When will things get back to normal?
  7. Reassurance.
  8. Voices of authority they can trust.

What does this tell us as communicators? Do NOT play the blame game! We need to make our stories about people – our audiences. We need to engage traditional and social media to reach those audiences, quickly and consistently. Remember, whoever connects with the new and traditional media first sets the news template. Everyone else is reacting to what you have said.

In times of stress one of the first things to go, when people face a crisis, is their short-term memory. They don’t know that they don’t know. As communicators we need to make sure our messages are brief, uncomplicated, and succinct.

Finally, it’s critical to understand when things go wrong, you only have one chance to get it right. There is no such thing as over-communicating.