International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
Health /13 Mar 2020

It’s PR during ER: Communicating the ‘Unsexy Facts’ of the Coronavirus Outbreak

The #hashtag. The photograph. The caption. The call to action and then, the narrative. Storytelling in times of crisis has long been focused on attracting awareness and massive news-spreading. But there are more ways to tell a story. The most important aspect is a narrative that leads with impact and goes beyond panic and viral tweets. But are we ever prepared as communication practitioners during a global outbreak? Is panic-driven information still the go-to solution? Do click-bait headlines still work?

One of my mentors once said that when creating the “communications strategy plan” (aka the living bible for most development practitioners) you can only upgrade not reduce. This meant that a good communications strategy is one that conveys a balance between facts and emotional appeal. Yes, even during a global outbreak, addressing emotions is still needed. This is because we are still dealing with people. And people connect and react with feelings. A quote by Melissa Flaming, the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the United Nations, stated that “it is not only our duty to point out what is going wrong in the world, but rather, what can go right to convey a sense of hope.”

I realized that this is easier said than done. As a communications practitioner, my job goes beyond showcasing the projects going on in the field and campaigning for it using the catchiest hashtags. In the beginning, I thought that was exactly the goal of what a communications practitioner should do. However, if that was the goal, then the initial vision must be wrong. So how do we communicate with “emotions” without necessarily devaluing the substance of the issue? Here are several ways.

Facts over Fears

Misinformation has been heightened ever since the first coronavirus outbreak was first reported. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom said at the time: “This is a time for facts not fear.” Science has often been undermined at the expense of rumors and conspiracy theories. Trust, the very thing we hold dear, must not be eroded. This is exactly a good case of how to “humanize data.” So what is the pro-tip? There is a theory called the “inoculation theory” which is basically persuading people not to be persuaded. I know, it sounds complicated. However, it’s a simple “reverse engineering” communications trick. In real life, this means getting ahead of misinformation and countering the destructive effect by providing only scientifically approved messages and information.

To convince someone of something true, you need to keep repeating it, probably many more times than the untruths are repeated. And make sure to support it with all available evidence. Oftentimes, communicating the “unsexy part” will require repetitive information sharing. Because building trust does take time. I believe that more needs to be done to understand these pressures and barriers, develop effective and creative communications that harness these beliefs, and reach individuals where they live as empowered health consumers rather than passive recipients of health services.

Be culturally strategic

Much greater effort needs to be placed on developing culturally informed, regional communications strategies to reduce panic-driven solutions. It is important to take into consideration the culture that they are operating in, and how that shapes their narrative and viewpoint. When we start to shift our focus towards the commonalities and differences in shared lives we create a safe space for communications in curing an international development crisis to progress positively. For example, we currently operate in an audience with short attention spans.

My pro-tip: during crisis communication, there are two I’s that are important to keep in mind: inclusivity and identity. We need to protect the identity of the victims and should continue to focus on prevention-method with close updates from the health professionals. However, the information should be disseminated that is inclusive to all audiences despite language, mobility barriers, etc. If this is put into the messaging of your information dissemination, this creates positive instead of panic-driven responses.

“Persuading to not be Persuaded”

It is very easy to highlight the worst scenarios in any development setting. It sells, it creates an instant clickbait. Misinformation travels lightly during a global health outbreak and the destructive effects of it have become clearer and more highlighted. This is a reverse engineering tactic where we need to get ahead of the misinformation and counter its destructive effect by providing factual and “easy-to-understand” information. It is very easy to succumb to headlines that are using public relations language rather than those who have scientific headlines. However, the challenge is not for all communications tools and products, including digital and social media approaches to be all-inclusive and be developed for non-health specialists. This is then facilitating the integration of effective interventions across the continuum of the outbreak to elevate the responsiveness.

Build Trust, Trust, Trust

Lastly, it is important to build trust in information dissemination and solutions. Trust can be reinforced if you continue to put protecting the public’s perception as the main goal. For example, it is important to convey the development of a pipeline of vaccines. This is because visible efforts should also put into preventive preparedness and not just in emergency responsiveness. Government and state-level response should be communicated daily. Concrete and small steps towards risk mitigation can go a long way.

The public requires constant reminders. Like an alarm clock, we tend to easily snooze at the right time. As such, they need to be fed with factual, culturally sensitive, and timely information of not only prevention methods, but also the solutions taking place. Additionally, it is equally important to support it with credible evidence. As someone working in an international development agency, a trusted source of information should remain visible across multiple communication channels and should remain vigilant for misinformation. Because crisis management is a continuous process.