Communicating about coronavirus: Lessons from Ebola and other emergencies

Doug Levy
Doug Levy
Mar 5 · 6 min read

When a physician at the medical center where I worked was diagnosed with Ebola in 2014, I learned that many people simply don’t hear facts when they are afraid. Even a few Ph.D. scientists in my circle acted more out of emotion and fear than facts and evidence. When the goal is preparation, not panic, communicators must recognize how people receive — and perceive — messages, especially during times of heightened anxiety.

Rule № 1: People want to take action, even if they have little or no risk. Give them something to do.

Store shelves are being stripped as people panic-purchase oversupplies of hand sanitizer, disinfectants and foods like pasta and beans. While I applaud that people are checking their emergency supplies, I hope they put as much effort into checking their smoke and CO detectors, knowing evacuation routes, and updating family communications plans.

For the general public, the main message must be:

Wash your hands. Frequently. Thoroughly.

Rule № 2: Keep your message simple, direct and irrefutable.

When people are afraid, there is little anyone can do to convince them they are safe. As scientists gather more data that explains who is at risk for coronavirus, that information may be useful to doctors but it will only muddle your messages. Use direct sentences with active not passive verbs, include only the essential details, and keep it short.

Instead of this: “The main way the disease spreads is through respiratory droplets expelled by someone who is coughing. The risk of catching COVID-19 from someone with no symptoms at all is very low.”

Say this: “You can catch this virus if you are within a few feet of an infected person and a droplet from their coughing or sneezing gets into your eyes, nose or mouth.”

The difference is that the second version is a direct sentence and the message has only one main point, on the mode of transmission. As important as the second point about risk may be, you want your audience to hear the mode of transmission and not be distracted by a second point.

Also, watch out for anything that might trip-up your message. While the CDC calls the disease outbreak COVID19, short for Coronavirus 2019, the mention of “2019” might confuse a reader who only wants to know what is happening right now. If the detail is not essential, leave it out.

Rule № 3: Facts matter, but don’t overdo it.

Media outlets and others are tallying up coronavirus cases much like statistics on sports pages. While the global numbers may be interesting, they do little to help the people that you are trying to communicate with understand how they are potentially impacted. Pick one number and put it in context, like this:

“The six people in our county who have been diagnosed with coronavirus all caught it when they were traveling in Italy or China. So far, there have been no cases that were caught within our community.”

Rule № 4: The messenger matters.

Trust builds over time. Familiar faces are more effective messengers, even if someone else may be more of an expert. For health emergencies, having a physician, nurse or scientist provide information almost always works better than having any politician do it. At the same time, pay attention to the “performance” aspects of conveying public information. Not everyone makes a good impression on camera. Some people get flustered or uncomfortable. And you must watch for and prevent distractions that undercut your message.

A mayor, governor or other well known, senior official should be visible, but they should yield to non-political experts when it comes to conveying public health direction.

Rule № 5: Make your message relevant.

This Texas sign gets attention by relating virus prevention to everyday practices.

The Texas officials who created coronavirus signs that explained good handwashing in the context of touching your eyes after slicing jalapenos managed to infuse a little levity while also conveying their health message in language that their audience understands.

Humor rarely works in emergency preparedness, but this was clever and probably effective. The key is to make sure that whatever message is used is 100% accurate, without any ambiguity.

Other ways to make messages relatable is to describe how the health practice works in everyday life. Simply saying, “when you wash your hands, make sure that the water is hot and soapy and you scrub for at least 20 seconds” helps people understand that you are merely asking them to do what they already do — only more thoroughly.

Rule № 6: Think through all the steps.

People need to know what signs or symptoms to watch for and what to do if they think they are getting sick or if they see someone they think may be sick. But you don’t want potentially infected individuals passing a virus along when they go to their boss to say they are sick. Be specific with your guidance.

Instead of: “If you have a cough and a fever, stay home. If you are at work and start coughing or have a fever, tell your supervisor and go home.”

A better message would be: “If you are at work and feel sick, isolate yourself from others and email your supervisor for further instructions. Do not approach other people.”

Large companies are setting up specific places for isolation, but those locations probably should not be disclosed widely so that they are truly secure.

Rule № 7: Stay in your lane

.A company’s information technology department should not be sending messages giving health advice, just as a health department should not send information about data security. Nonetheless, each has a role in the current situation.

My IT service provider sent a message with recommendations on how to scale secure collaboration tools in case large numbers of employees must stay home or avoid face-to-face meetings. This is the kind of advance thinking that more must do. Temples, churches and schools are notifying people what their plans are in case the virus spreads and forces changes to normal schedules or events. These messages focus on each sender’s direct responsibility. Link to the local health authorities rather than copy or repeat their messaging.

One good practice is to have a common set of links to authoritative sites for other information. For example, messages from IT, HR, or anyone else could include a link to the CDC’s public-facing coronavirus page so that anyone who wants more detail knows where to get it.

Rule № 8: Avoid telling people what they shouldn’t do.

The Surgeon General’s office tweeted to tell people to “Stop buying masks.”
The Surgeon General’s office tweeted to tell people to “Stop buying masks.”
The Surgeon General’s office tweeted to tell people to “Stop buying masks.”

Human nature is to be contrarian. If someone tells you not to do something, you are more likely to do it.

The Surgeon General’s Twitter plea to “stop buying masks” not only likely fell on deaf ears, it may have heightened mask hoarding. Human nature programs people to resist instructions like this, especially when wearing masks looks like it helps, even if it does not.

The bottom line: Get all the information, then digest it down to the essential message for your audience.

Healthcare workers require a lot of detail, but the general public simply needs to know what to do — right now and how to know when things change. Focus on this, and your messages are more likely to work.

Doug Levy

Written by

Doug Levy

Journalist/Non-practicing Lawyer/Communications Strategist. Peabody Award-winning ex-USA Today #Health & #Technology reporter #Food #Wine #Travel #Law

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