Reduce stigma and increase two-way dialogue: WHO's prescription for coronavirus comms

The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced new guidance for risk communication and community engagement around COVID-19, which warns against stigmatising those with the virus and stresses the importance of a continuous dialogue with target audiences.

The WHO's new comms guidance is aimed at government and healthcare professionals (Pic credit: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images
The WHO's new comms guidance is aimed at government and healthcare professionals (Pic credit: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

Communicating “critical risk and event information to all communities” and countering misinformation are among WHO’s strategic objectives in fighting the outbreak, according to the guidance.

Action plan

It has been produced by WHO’s comms team and is designed to help “develop, implement and monitor an effective action plan for communicating effectively with the public, engaging with communities, local partners and other stakeholders to help prepare and protect individuals, families and the public’s health”.


The danger of stigma around the virus is highlighted in the guidance, released this week. It states: “Stigma can undermine social cohesion and prompt social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread.”

It says that: “Regular and proactive communication with the public and at-risk populations can help to reduce stigma, build trust and increase social support and access to basic needs for affected people and their families.”

The guidance – attached in full below – adds that “accurate information can help alleviate confusion and avoid misunderstandings” and care should be taken when it comes to the “language used in describing the outbreak, its origins, and prevention steps”.

Two-way communication

The importance of having a dialogue with “communities, the public and other stakeholders in order to understand risk perceptions, behaviours and existing barriers, specific needs [and] knowledge gaps” is also stressed.

Having a two-way dialogue can also provide specific communities with accurate information "tailored to their circumstances”.

The guidance states: “People have the right to be informed about and understand the health risks that they and their loved ones face. They also have the right to actively participate in the response process.”

Two-way dialogue should not be an afterthought and should be “established with affected populations from the beginning”.

It should be maintained “through diverse channels, at all levels and throughout the response".

Identifying and understanding audiences – and targeting those who influence them – are critical steps recommended by WHO in developing a comms and engagement plan.

The guidance also stresses the importance of co-ordination and having a rumour-tracking system to identify and report misinformation to the relevant body.

It adds: “Make sure to respond to rumours and misinformation with evidence-based guidance so [they] can be effectively refuted.”

Healthcare comms professionals respond

Commenting on the new guidance, Angela Mahaney, co-lead of health at Edelman UK, told PRWeek: “Local leadership, including government and business, will need to play an important role in finding ways to support two-way dialogue, while at the same time using that approach to reduce stigma within communities, throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Referring to a report by the Edelman Trust Barometer released this week, she added: “The most credible source [of] information is an individual’s employer, with major news outlets relied upon nearly twice as much as global health organisations… yet WHO officials, along with scientists and MDs, are considered the most trusted spokespeople.

“This underscores the need for communications agencies and their clients – health sector or more broadly – to leverage the WHO’s Guide wherever possible.”

Jenny Ousbey, founder and managing director at OVID Health, said: “Regular and proactive communication with the public is indeed critical in a public-health crisis. But we know from our experience as health communicators that some common strategies such as myth-busting and fact-sharing don’t work. Even here in the UK, where we have an overflow of facts and figures, it is still leading to official advice not being followed.”

She added: “Communication needs emotional resonance, it needs to make sense for people and for the things they care about. Two-way dialogue is a critical way of doing that – find out what works and play it back. This is especially important for hidden communities such as the homeless or non-English-speakers.”

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