BOOK REVIEW: Lessons for Marketers from the Pandemic of 1918

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. Penguin Books, 2005, with revisions in 2018.

Reviewed by Jonathan Groner, public relations consultant and freelance writer

I set out this spring to find a good book on the COVID-19 pandemic, or on pandemics in general, and how they affect marketing and communications and what we as marketers can learn about communications in periods of crisis. I found no book more relevant than The Great Influenza, journalist John M. Barry’s authoritative 2005 study on the 1918 worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic.

Even though the Spanish Flu took place more than 100 years ago, there were still newspapers and government agencies functioning in much the same roles as they do today. While the effectiveness of these bodies can be argued (as is being debated today on social media and in living rooms across the country), the underlying lesson is clear: messaging matters.

As legal marketers, we have a responsibility to our clients, both external and internal, to make sure they have the right information at the right time to make the best decisions possible. As you’ll see below, while circumstances change, effective communication never goes out of style.

Although that epidemic has mostly been forgotten in popular culture and was hardly depicted in the art or literature of the time (a surprising fact that Barry addresses in his book), it was a devastating plague that killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide and at least 650,000 people in the United States, mostly in a matter of months. No one had seen anything like it, and no one believed that “the flu” could do such damage.

Although the new coronavirus of 2019-20 and the influenza virus of 1918 are biologically quite different from each other, these two events, 100 years apart, are powerfully linked as the two worst epidemics in the U.S. since its founding. To my surprise, Barry writes more as a historian of science and medicine than as a chronicler of daily life or of politics and government. He says in an appendix that the book took seven years for him to complete, partly because “it didn’t seem possible to write about the scientists without exploring the nature of American medicine at this time, for the scientists in this book did far more than laboratory research. They changed the very nature of medicine in the United States.”

Barry’s heroes are the individuals who gave their days and nights, and sometimes their lives, to uncover the cause of this pandemic. There are some deep dives into virology in his early chapters, but Barry is able to make his topic sound fascinating, and his discussions remain well within the range of a nonscience major.

We have come a long way, scientifically, since 1918. From the very beginning of the current pandemic, scientists knew exactly what novel coronavirus was causing it. During the 1918 pandemic, viruses had not yet been distinguished from bacteria (and would not be so distinguished until 1926). And although most doctors correctly termed the pandemic disease of 1918 a form of influenza, its exact biological composition wasn’t determined until the 1930s, as many researchers believed wrongly for decades that the disease was caused by a bacterium, not a virus.

But there is still a great deal that we don’t know about COVID-19, and one thing that struck me almost from the beginning of the book was that social distancing, quarantine and isolation were known and were used – quite effectively – in 1918. There are still no effective drugs against most viral infections, and there is still no vaccine against this virus. So, in many ways, despite all the scientific breakthroughs of a century, we are still putting into place some of the medical advice from 1918.

One way in which our society has improved measurably since 1918, however, is in the realm of communication. During the earlier pandemic, the nation was still fighting abroad in World War I, and Barry provides a telling indictment of President Woodrow Wilson (who never even mentioned influenza in an official statement) and of much of the federal and state governments. In addition to war fever, there also was a bizarre pseudo-medical belief that the pandemic could be aggravated by fear and that confidence and carrying on were the best preventative measures.

As Barry writes, during the worst weeks of the pandemic, “the federal government was giving no guidance that a reasonable person could credit. Few local governments did better. They left a vacuum. Fear filled it. The government’s very efforts to preserve ‘morale’ fostered the fear, for since the war began, morale – defined in the narrowest, most short-sighted fashion – had taken precedence in every public utterance.” It was a time, Barry said, when the government, at all levels, routinely lied to the people, and not just about the influenza.

And the press did not help. Barry writes, “As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified the public by making little of it, for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.”

In my opinion, our current federal, state and local governments, and the media, have not been perfect, but I feel they have not made the problem worse. And, from what I’ve seen, in many cases their decisions and advice have been literally lifesaving. The lesson for us as marketers is that messaging matters. We are not researchers in the laboratories or physicians, nurses and EMTs on the front lines – but what we do and say affects human lives. It’s our job, at work and at home, to present facts and to give humane, scientifically based advice to those who want it.

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