Messaging during the crisis

The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided guidance on risk communication and community engagement. It describes it as a tool to assist development, implementation and monitoring of a public communication plan, engaging with communities and others, to ‘help prepare and protect individuals, families and the public’s health during early response to COVID-19.’

As part of this information kit, WHO has produced a document which can support wording used to reduce mental health pressure and social stigma for individuals recovering or affected by COVID-19 in some way. It is a must read for communicators and reporters covering the pandemic.

It seeks to guide the use of descriptions and wording relating to people affected by COVID-19, recommending:

  • “not to attach the disease to any particular ethnicity or nationality”
  • asks for empathic response and remembering that those affected “have not done anything wrong”
  • to avoid describing those affected as “COVID-19 cases”, “COVID-19 victims”, “victims”, “COVID-19 families”, or “the diseased”,
    and to instead use
  • “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19” or “people who are recovering from COVID-19”. It gives the important reminder that “it is important to separate a person from having an identity defined by COVID-19, in order to reduce stigma.”

The guidance document: Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak, first published 18 March 2020.

Understand how people respond to risk to improve messaging

Dr Peter Sandman’s risk communication key documents, including ones from 2001, is still used by myself and thousands on thousands of others in development and modelling.

This and other articles Sandman PhD has written are a good starting point for people new to risk communication in an emergency planning setting as well as experienced practitioners. They give a clear understanding of human response to risk particularly in health. They have helped me develop a structure I have used with others for communications and IT-development to help improve public understanding of the information and potential steps they can take. Also adapted, it has been useful for testing hypothesis in UX when creating models and approaches.

In my work which has a mix of more traditional comms and AI, I’ve included Sandman’s recent recommendations. He extols a public information approach needed to assist people frightened or ‘miserable’ by COVID-19. He refers to three types of guidance: behavioural, anticipatory and emotional.

These can be helpful in creating communications plans too at both a granular level and wider behaviour change/ helping the public understand and respond to transitions in the crisis. His work is used in a number of emergency planning settings globally. Do read it if you are working on modelling and communications approaches during this public health emergency.

Learning from communication approaches from medical practitioners

Many of the consultant and professional medical journals have information we as communicators and developers can learn from in helping public understanding and ensuring sensitivity and empathy is at the core. These two references were suggested in discussion with my father Dr Thakor, who also has communications research experience in this area and a consultant colleague of his.
How to talk to patients about COVID-19, ENT Today

Alexander G. Chiu MD wrote a letter to ENT Today published on 13 March 2020. It which has been used for communications discussions in the medical profession and far wider. In this letter, he wrote: “The take-away lesson here is that words and how we communicate them do matter.” He raised questions about whether people’s responses would have been different if the language had been about the “new coronavirus” rather than “novel”. He highlighted the need to communicate “science to the public in a lay person’s language”.