The declaration of COVID- 19 by the World Health Organisation as a global pandemic has plunged the world in unchartered waters. It has afflicted over 8 million people in 213 countries, left over 425,000 dead, millions unemployed, overwhelmed hospitals, broken supply chains and deflated critical sectors such as tourism, energy and agriculture.
Crisis communications done properly can save lives.
The communications tool kit includes fact sheets, FAQs, websites, what’s app, hotlines, social media, regular digital press briefings, webinars, virtual town halls with impacted stakeholder groupings, public service announcements and sponsored advertising. Public education messages are strong, frequent and presented in fresh and stimulating ways with lots of graphics, visuals and audio clips aided by influencers. There are town criers in some remote communities, and in other countries such as France and Martinique -drones, police and other authorised vehicles with loudspeakers help keep people in check. Other technology driven mechanisms are also being introduced to further track and monitor persons among them CCTV cameras and smartphone location data.
Messages are centred around explaining what is the virus, symptoms, how it is spread, who are the most vulnerable, precautionary measures-including social distancing, respiratory etiquette, sanitisation, handwashing, personal hygiene, adherence to protocols for caring for the ill, self- isolation, and quarantines. The messages also remind people to prepare but not to panic. They also address emerging issues such as stigmatisation of health workers, patients and their families as well as the use of the wearing of masks in public spaces by the general public – a measure that has been adopted by many countries.
As the crisis progresses and stronger measures are applied, public and gentle moral suasion meet with resistance and so the agility and intensity of the communications programming in tandem with the scaling up of stronger measures become more evident.
Lessons from COVID-19
Here are 11 lessons in communicating during COVID-19.
Resist the ostrich syndrome
Crisis management is not for the fainthearted. Preparedness is important in handling a crisis. Failure to face reality, inability to recognise that a major public health crisis is looming and reluctance to take early pre-emptive measures, including acting quickly, and decisively can cost lives. Strong, firm leadership is essential. Leaders must be bold, creative, courageous and inspirational. They must be rational, calm and reassuring. They must be credible, authentic, and relatable -they must also practice what they preach and especially in this instance with COVID-19 model the behaviours espoused by international and their own national health authorities.
Communications is integral to the crisis response
Communications need to be at the heart of policy and decision making. As the crisis intensifies and ultimately subsides, plans, operations and messages will evolve. Communications planning and programming need to be agile and nimble. Messages need to be quickly adaptable, easily understood, clear. factual, consistent and timely.
Audience segmentation is key
Identifying and quickly trouble- shooting issues, clearly defining audiences, carefully developing, targeting and aligning messages are important to promoting comprehensiveness and inclusiveness. Communications and operations must dovetail so that no important stakeholder group is overlooked or left behind. This includes vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, disabled, elderly, children, women, and the unemployed.
Attitudinal and behaviour change is difficult.
There will be initial resistance to some of the stipulated measures especially in challenging and changing cultural norms. Change will not happen overnight. It is important to explain the reasons for firm, more stringent measures whilst underscoring the benefits to promote compliance especially good hygiene practices and social distancing protocols for the personal as well as the greater public good.
Handle vulnerable communities sensitively
Persons who are afflicted with the disease, their families, the unemployed, and those facing financial and other hardships need to be handled with kids’ gloves. Communications must be especially caring, compassionate, sensitive and humanitarian.
The business community and other vital sectors need to be specially engaged. Difficult conversations such as redundancies, layoffs and furloughing also need to be handled carefully and in tandem with the law.
Create avenues for feedback
Listen up! Consultation is important. Feedback channels are especially helpful to calibrate the level of understanding and engagement as well as to inform next steps, including urgent, necessary, practical and customised targeted resolutions. They are also useful to aid in self reporting.
Regular monitoring and measurement must occur to assess progress, lessons learnt and keep abreast of developments to quickly inform next steps or other measures that need to be urgently applied. When the crisis is over, conduct a full evaluation and update plans for future reference.
Rally together for the common good
Crises can prompt a humanitarian response and bring out the best in us. Goodwill grows and should be encouraged. As people rally for the common good it is heart- warming to see the wide ranging assistance being offered from international partners, corporate and civil society to make for the shoring up of essential supplies for the health sector and to aid the less vulnerable.
A new paradigm – Crises can create paradigm shifts. Going virtual is the new norm in almost every sector as telemedicine, digital business, remote working, distance teaching become more common place. However innovative ways need to be found to close the digital divide especially in important sectors such as education to ensure that no one is left behind.
As respiratory etiquette takes center-stage the rules of professional and social etiquette are also changing. Warm embraces and cheek to cheek kisses may very well be replaced with nods, waves, elbow bumps, fancy footworks, Wakanda, Star Trek inspired and other distance styled greetings We may even see the return of masks, gloves, bustlers and crinolines as fashion statements!
There is a growing respect for persons who do so much for our homes, business, community and society and are often overlooked for their valued contribution. The crisis has created a level playing field and encouraging us to become a kinder, gentler more humane society where there is greater respect for everyone. This must be encouraged and fully embraced beyond the crisis.
Thank and celebrate the heroes
We need to think about how we say thank you to these persons who go beyond the pale virtually putting their lives at risk for the public good among them health workers, first responders, janitors, sanitation experts, drivers, farmers, vendors, supermarket staff, pharmacists and volunteers. We must publicly recognise them and applaud their efforts in keeping us healthy and safe.
Communication Samples from Jamaica
Communications must be age appropriate, catchy and memorable.
Yanique Dobson, teacher of Brown’s Town High School in Jamaica created this catchy jingle about Corona Virus to the jolly tune of Jingle Bells or dancehall artistes. Similarly, several artistes lent their voices in creating and sharing messages to promote awareness of the virus and the reasons to take precautionary measures.
To make sure that the message is crystal clear nothing beats the local vernacular/Jamaican patois. Here is a tweet from Christopher Tufton, Jamaica’s Health Minister which got the thumbs up from the WHO and others.
We NEED you to #StayAtHome. ⠀ If you don’t need to go on the road, #TanAhYuhYaad. ⠀ If you don’t need to visit someone, #KipYuhDistance. If you don’t need to be round people, even family, #TekWehYuhSelf. ⠀ ⠀ Be a hero, stay at home. ⠀ #JaCOVID19 #GemmiLikkleSpace