Communicating about coronavirus: Lessons from Ebola and other emergencies
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.