Communicating in the face of a pandemic


As was only to be expected the coronavirus outbreak has captured the world’s attention.

But along with stories about the health threat pandemic poses, an opinion piece on last week also had some valuable lessons about communicating in a crisis – and the importance of thinking about the mental wellbeing of everyone you are talking to as well as updates on facts and safety measures. 

Alison Cole makes the extremely important, and often forgotten point that messaging in the face of a crisis must not only be factual and transparent, but address what can be basic emotional needs, consider mental health, and be contextually relevant on a local level. 

There are a few key takeaways from this piece that got us thinking beyond the facts and stats of the Coronavirus. 

  • While some organisations may have crisis plans in place and be well-rehearsed in how to react, the general public have not been educated in how to respond in a crisis. Naturally, they fall back on emotional instincts which are often fear and panic. 
  • We need to start talking about how to protect our mental health in the face of crisis – not just focusing on the practical, obvious actions. 
  • Care needs to be taken with communities that have suffered in the past. If the contextual environment is not considered, concern may be over or underplayed in the community, creating further risk. 
  • Key information sources, such as government organisations and media must address the emotional needs of their audience. 

Addressing further complications of communicating in a crisis of this nature, Damien Venuto also wrote this week in the New Zealand Herald of the awkward position media are in when reporting on this global issue.

The impact of Coronavirus remains difficult to predict, information is incomplete and/or inaccurate and views from bodies like the World Health Organisation are changing almost daily. Media are caught between providing accurate information fast while facing the very real risk of mass hysteria that may be founded or unfounded.

Readers and viewers are equally challenged with clickbait headlines, inconsistent information; and (ironically giving the references used in this piece), having to separate opinion from fact. Panic, anxiety and depression are invisible symptoms of any global health crisis. 

There is no easy solution to this challenge. Some may even argue that a certain level of hysteria helps drive action. But there are some key principles that can help maintain balance in a crisis. 

  1. Maintain ONE key source of information and communicate this source clearly
  2. Never communicate any facts that can’t be substantiated by referring to the key information source
  3. Be clear and transparent when key information is not available or not able to be substantiated.
  4. Lead with the facts and support them with key actions for the audience