Back from West Africa, UNICEF's crisis comms chief explains fighting Ebola with information

UNICEF's goal: demystifying Ebola to audiences around the world.

UNICEF Chief of Crisis Communications Sarah Crowe talked with PRWeek about her experience communicating facts and dispelling myths about the Ebola epidemic after spending five weeks in Liberia.

PRWeek: What is the current state of the Ebola crisis in West Africa?
Sarah Crowe: What we’ve seen since the beginning of the epidemic is a sense that it is uneven and unpredictable. What we’re seeing right now in Liberia is giving us a glimmer of hope, but we cannot stop and take our foot off the pedal. We remain on red alert despite the fact that cases in Liberia and to a certain extent in Guinea have abated because cases have continued in Sierra Leone, and we have had new cases in Mali.

We have to remain fluid, flexible, and nimble with our response and listen to communities and work closely with them. We also see new research showing us that it is due to behavioral change at the community level that we’re starting to see changes in safe-burial practices and, of course, isolation of the sick.

PRWeek: What is UNICEF’s main message? How are you getting it out?
Crowe: When I was there, using the power of digital media was very forceful. One of the early messages was that we are able to operate on the ground, and that means following protocols: no touching, taking temperatures, keeping a distance, covering yourself, but not in [personal protective equipment]. That message was very important early on because we saw something of a reluctance or an apprehension by health NGOs and other aid workers. Even media were reluctant to come in the beginning.

It was also important to show visually that we were there and making a difference on the ground. I wrote a piece for the BBC in early September talking about what it was like to work for UNICEF, our proximity to children, and how it was so unnerving not to be able to play with or hold the children.

We’re involved at the community level, in training of community health workers, training of teachers because schools are closed, and training of social mobilizers, who go door-to-door trying to bring about behavior change in communities.

It was really about getting the message out about the complexity of the disease and the need to have a response, not only a financial and monetary response but really, importantly, human resources – nurses, health workers, aid workers, and doctors to support the efforts there.

PRWeek: Who were those messages reaching?
Crowe: Some of it was demystifying what it was like to be there, and my role was aimed at the media. I’m on Twitter -- I’m not huge, but I did use Twitter a lot -- and it was very useful to have the hashtag #Ebola.

We were showing that chlorine is everywhere, that water is everywhere, and that we take our temperatures all the time, and getting that message out about how you operate and how you function on the ground in something as unusual as an Ebola epidemic. Those messages went out to our national committees around the world that work in their markets that know their audiences very well.

In the case of the US, [the committee] started a campaign called #StopEbola on October 22. This was a social media effort with PSAs designed to raise awareness of Ebola and urge the public to support UNICEF’s efforts to contain the virus in West Africa and support children and families affected by it. At the beginning of that campaign, they reached more than 2 million people on social media and the US Fund for UNICEF raised $14 million from the American public for UNICEF’s Ebola response.

UNICEF still needs about $75 million, so the fundraising for Ebola has lagged a bit in comparison to other natural disasters. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, they raised over $70 million.

PRWeek: What are some of the challenges?
Crowe: What has been striking about this particular disaster is, normally you’re going to disaster zones and journalists and aid workers are struggling to get seats on the flight because they’re so full. The flight I was on was empty, which was an early indication of just how unusual this particular disaster was, which was why the message needed to be demystifying the operation on the ground and to show, visually, that we’re able to operate.

It took some time for the world to catch on. When I was in Liberia in the beginning, there was a real sense that Liberians felt abandoned by the world, and the cases were just horrific. You’d see people dying outside hospitals and health centers.

PRWeek: Is there a golden rule to communicating about Ebola?
Crowe: The main thing is really the demystifying of how to report and to be driven not by fear, but by fact. We realize that we’re dealing with a twin epidemic here, one of fear and ignorance, and on the other hand, the virus itself, which is why we need to be driven by the signs and not by hysteria.

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