From crisis communication to risk communication for sustained behavioural change
Crisis communication involves thinking about what we say and how we say it in response to an urgent, acute, and immediate problem. A long term risk communication strategy is very different; it needs to take the approach that one would take to a chronic, ongoing issue. How we communicate about COVID-19 needs to incorporate this long term approach, simply because it’s an ongoing, long term issue. It’s important that we look at risk communication from a behavioural approach, and we’re going to examine why.
Firstly, the public’s perceptions about the risks associated with a pandemic change due to the passing of time and numerous other factors. This necessitates a sustainable approach to communication that can predict and adapt to diverse, changing views.
Secondly, crisis fatigue means that, even when things are still pretty serious, a lot of people forget, get used to living in fear, or simply become too tired to comply with all the necessary measures. Even punitive regulations don’t always work.
Thirdly, communicating risk is not just the role of public health officials or regulatory bodies any more. To effect a long term mindset shift about pandemic risk, many more people will need to take on the role of risk communication — from retail operators and cabin crew, to teachers, service staff at a restaurant, and even parents and older children. The impact of a message changes based on the source, or who’s saying it.
Fourthly, the level of scientific and health literacy needed for messages about COVID-19 risk to sink in and cause behaviour change is generally much higher than what most people know about science and healthcare. In addition to risk communication, this is also a massive public education campaign.