Scary headlines about coronavirus have taken over the world’s frontpages. Misinformation is spreading at the speed of a click, and much about the virus itself remains unknown. Those responsible for communicating information about this new illness have a serious dilemma. On one hand, there’s an urgent need to tell employees, customers, patients or the public about risks; on the other, there’s the danger of contributing to the panic.
It’s difficult for non-health care specialists to make sense of medical data in the best of times, which these aren’t. The virus’ impacts are changing daily as new facts come to light. Fortunately, communicators can rely on straightforward principles to talk about the coronavirus. These tactics, which come from studies by the CDC and other public health bodies, do not guarantee successful communication, but they should minimize the risk of accidentally making matters worse.
Trust and credibility are crucial
It may seem obvious, but it’s vital that audiences trust spokespeople. Research identifies four key factors that bolster trust and credibility: (1) empathy and caring, (2) honesty and openness, (3) dedication and commitment, and (4) competence and expertise. Finding spokespeople who embody all of these factors is, admittedly, challenging, but combining as many of them as possible increases the chances your messages will be credible. Remember, your institution's greatest authority on viruses may be an ineffective spokesperson if they are viewed a cold or uncaring -- but the warmest empathizer may lack credibility without the right expertise, training and credentials.
State what you know to be true, not what you think might be true
People have a natural tendency to answer every question. In an outbreak like coronavirus, this tendency can trick us into filling gaps in our knowledge with things we have heard and believe might be true. Avoid this. Don't speculate. Stick to the facts.
It's OK not to know everything
In any health scare, it is inevitable that many questions will have incomplete answers -- and even those answers may change from one day to the next. Even so, communicators should not stay silent when answers are incomplete or uncertain. We have a responsibility to provide answers when those answers are known and to provide responsible context on what we don't know. Many people charged with communicating about the coronavirus have little deep expertise in the subject. It is especially important in those cases to explain what you do and do not know -- and to refer people to authoritative sources to fill in the medical gaps. Paradoxically, being candid about what you don’t know can increase the credibility of what you do know.
You may not be an expert in virology, but you should be an expert in what your organization is doing
The one area where your audiences will expect you to be an expert is in what actions – if any – your own organization is taking, and why. Providing the specifics of these actions is important, as is stating a clear commitment that provides the framework for the specific actions being taken, e.g., "Our goal is to make sure all our employees are informed," or "We're committed to keeping our customers safe." While specific actions may change as more facts come to light, the commitment must not waver – and must not be undermined by actions inconsistent with that commitment.
Practice makes perfect
Communicating about technically challenging yet emotionally charged subjects where key facts are still unknown is the double black diamond slope of communications. It's tough and a bit scary. Following these guidelines will help avoid major wipeouts, but just as in sports, practice is crucial. Going to be interviewed about a guest’s suspected case of coronavirus on your cruise ship? Practice a mock interview. About to stand up at an employee meeting and explain your policy about business travel to Asia? Practice fielding obvious questions.
Along with vaccines, medicines and quarantines, communication is now seen as critical part of our public health response to outbreaks. Accurate and compelling communication can motivate people to take the right actions. Poorly thought out communication can feed misinformation and spread fear. We all share the responsibility for getting it right.
David Bowen is global lead for health at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. He brings broad experience in healthcare policy, public-private partnerships, scientific research, communications strategy and business development in the U.S. and globally. His experience with disease threats is personal: On the U.S. Senate staff he was responsible for legislation on pandemic preparedness and was exposed to anthrax in the aftermath of 9/11.