Communication in the face of COVID-19

17th April 2020
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I work for the Meningitis Research Foundation and some of what we see now in terms of coronavirus communications mirrors what we see when this terrible disease strikes. When there are cases of meningitis, public health teams respond quickly and my team works hard to get accurate information out to worried communities. Monitoring news and social media are essential so that we can ensure facts replace fiction – accurate information can help to save lives.Here are some ways I think communicators can help  with fear, false claims, fault and fact.

Responding to fear 

With meningitis cases, the first response from the public is usually fear. We’ve seen the same with coronavirus. Unknowns bring questions by the minute, so it’s vital we have experts to call on who are used to rapidly evolving situations and know how to stay calm under pressure.As well as providing information, how it is delivered is important too. Experts have a vital role in reassuring people, where possible – all eyes are watching for clues on how to respond to the crisis, so they need to speak with this in mind.Comms professionals have a valuable role here, guiding them in how to frame facts in a way that is easy to understand. I always tell our academics to remember their numbers are people, and to think of those sat at home listening to their message.I’ve been impressed with the coverage from our health and science correspondents, which in many ways is thanks to the hard work of the Science Media Centre. But other media channels have no doubt caused distress. Pictures of empty supermarkets, scenes from inside hospitals in Italy; all of this adds to public anxiety and our experts should be aware of the context and speak with this in mind.It’s also important to remember that news reports are continually updating. According to Swedish research on news articles on swine flu, media framing changes continuously, several times a day. Different audiences may have different views and beliefs about the crisis at any one time so pointing people to the latest guidance, research and information can avoid confusion and help people feel more in control. While this can be challenging, it provides an opportunity for those with a robust and accurate voice to shape the unfolding narrative.

False claims

I’ve spent much time in the past few weeks correcting my friend’s social media posts: everything from gargling with vinegar to holding your breath for ten seconds. There has been a flurry of misinformation, but I’m pleased to see most hasn’t made the science and health press.  However, we need to respond to social media consumption too. Be careful what information you share, even if it appears to come from a trusted source – people like to be first with new information, sometimes bypassing usual rigour. It’s vital to get the information confirmed or to get several opinions or views if a simple answer isn’t available.The announcement around coronavirus and ibuprofen, for example, was shared widely through trusted channels before being heavily edited.It’s difficult in rapidly evolving fields, but I’ve learnt when there are meningitis cases to only state boldly the things you can prove or have consensus on, the rest must be treated as unconfirmed and have the caveats highlighted.Public panic can also lead to false information – public reporting of cases of illness that turn out to be incorrect, for example. So check and check again.

Fault 

Anger and blame is a challenging thing to deal with when it comes to infectious diseases. It’s also a way for some news channels to attract readers’ attention. We see it a lot in local reporting of meningitis cases: ‘who spread the disease’, ‘where did it originate’, ‘who is at fault’. Emotive cries can be avoided by reviewing comments and messages for unintended blame or misinterpretation. Picture any negative headlines before you send the information and see how you can adapt the message. Be careful to ensure your communications keep in mind propensity to attach anger and try to be solution-focussed rather than problem-focussed where possible.

Facts 

Acting fast to ensure people have accurate information quickly is critical but also remember that sometimes being slow and correct is better than being fast and wrong.Planning is key. Regular horizon scanning, pre-prepared Q&As and trained experts can all help in a crisis. Having a crisis plan and knowing responsibilities (for signoff, for example) also saves valuable time.Ensure statistics are given with context to the public to avoid misinterpretation and make use of your networks to ensure facts have the broadest reach possible.Make sure you put your experts up for comment, if you don’t fill the thirst for information with an expert voice, it leaves a gap for misinformation.


And always be ready to update in case new developments arise.

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