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Coronavirus: Trends and considerations for communicating during public health threats

With the first cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) confirmed in Canada and the number of presumed cases increasing daily, there is growing concern about what the virus—and its impact—means for Canadians.

For communicators, managing the razor-thin line between sharing important details and inciting widespread panic requires a delicate balance. When there are often more questions than answers, seemingly straightforward communications exercises can result in unexpected consequences.

As the World Health Organization just declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the high-profile speculation and coverage of the virus’ evolution bring back memories of past major global health issues like the SARS outbreak in 2003 and H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009. The parallels drawn between COVID-19 and SARS prompted us to reflect on some significant changes since these past threats in how our society consumes and expects information.

1. Complexity demands clarity

In the healthcare space, confusing language, jargon, and acronyms reign supreme. Even the names of viruses can be difficult to socialize with the general public—no, the coronavirus doesn’t have anything to do with the beer—and the public isn’t always able to associate a specific illness with its common symptoms.

To overcome this, organizations and individuals must work together to ensure everybody is using consistent terminology and talking about viruses like COVID-19 in the same, digestible way.

2. Transparency remains a delicate—yet critical—best practice

The public has a right to information—especially when it comes to information that has health implications. But with news spreading faster than ever before, containing an update or message can quickly turn into a virtual impossibility. The balance between sharing immediate updates and risking inaccurate information being shared due to the speed of communications is delicate.

There’s a certain responsibility that comes with sharing sensitive information. That responsibility becomes even greater when the information could incite a sensationalized public response. At the same time, remaining quiet may not be the solution in these situations—the adage of no news is good news doesn’t hold.

Organizations can still be communicative without sharing groundbreaking information. Sharing straightforward information about the immediate impact on your organization and audiences can go a long way, and may be more appropriate than sharing speculative information, or nothing at all.

3. Fake news flourishes in society’s need for speed

The expectation of timeliness has drastically changed thanks to the rise of different platforms for communication.

When we look back to SARS in 2003, only Friendster, LinkedIn and My Space were online—traditional media was still the primary mode of information sharing, which meant a longer news cycle and more time for teams and communicators to prepare messaging.

Now, not only do we have more channels and less time to respond, we must also consider the kind of information that’s being shared, and how the public might be influenced. A 2018 study conducted by MIT found that by every standard measurement, fake news bests the truth: it reaches more people, dives deeper into social networks, and spreads six times faster than its truthful counterpart.

Communications efforts should aim to stave the spread of fake news by feeding social channels with reliable, truthful and evidence-based information—in as timely a way as possible. Consistency in messaging is also a key consideration.

4. Conversations are accessible, but authority to communicate should be carefully considered

With the demand for transparency, speed, and information greater than ever before, it means there are also more voices entering the conversation. When we look at past public health threats like SARS and H1N1, official communications emanated from governments, public health authorities, and for the most part, established, high-profile touchpoints.

Today, these types of conversations are more accessible to a variety of consumer brands and public facing organizations. In the case of COVID-19, organizations with stakeholders directly or indirectly impacted—like airlines, hotels, municipalities, tourism boards, and retail brands—must decide if and how they will show up.

While being active in current affairs and leveraging trending conversations can be tempting for brand relevance, it may be more appropriate to leave the information sharing to the real experts—health and government bodies.

Ultimately, public health issues can be an important moment for organizations and brands to show up for their audiences. However, there is a significant degree of evaluation and expertise that should be applied in determining the appropriate content, timing, and delivery of these communications.