The coronavirus pandemic has presented governments with the challenge of implementing public health measures to contain the spread of the epidemic by promoting social distancing, forcing people to work from home, and closing schools, business and events as well as forcing quarantine measures.
The actions to contain the epidemic seek to “flatten the curve” related to the growth of the disease and, thus, reduce the risk of overwhelming the emergency care system and, more importantly, save lives. The containment measures, even though disruptive and costly in the short-run, are at the moment the best public health policy option for governments to fight the novel disease while the scientific and medical community are still seeking to develop a vaccine and effective treatment protocols for the disease.
Given this current scenario, a good crisis communication strategy has become a key pillar in ensuring a good implementation of containment measures. In this blog we offer practical tips to aid local governments in this task.
The communication challenge
The containment measures to fight the disease present governments with three communication challenges:
a) Change social norms. Social distancing forces people to limit their physical interaction with others, employees must be forced to work from home and students may be forced to take classes online.
b) Manage conflicting interests. Forcing people to stay home will hurt businesses and workers in the informal sector may feel they have no option other than breaking the containment measures to be able to pay their bills and feed their families. The pressure from these constituents may erode support from certain government and political actors for the containment measures.
c) Ensure compliance. Containment measures may last for several weeks and compliance during the period will be key for the success of these measures.
10 recommendations for a good crisis communications for governments
Local governments can play a key role in addressing such challenges given their proximity to citizens and in-depth knowledge of local conditions and specific audiences. A good communication strategy and implementation at a local level can go a long way to contain the epidemic.
Here are 10 recommendations for local governments should consider in their crisis communications:
1. Define your objective. For this epidemic, the objective should be to slow the spread of the disease. As a result, it is important that governments follow closely this indicator. However, given the fact it will take time to see the impact of the measures, governments should ensure that in their plan they keep track on certain performance indicators that can allow them to measure whether the communication is being effective: number of events cancelled, monitor the number of people on the streets and gatherings, for example.
2. Define your key audiences and channels. Governments need to identify key actors and how best to reach them. It is important that governments understand their needs and tailor specific messages to address their concerns or potential blockers that will prevent them from taking the desired containment actions. For example, governments should consider messages for specific age groups and segments of society, such as workers in the informal sector, small businesses, salaried workers, students, etc.
3. Centralize and establish a clear chain of command for your communications. This will help you avoid inconsistent messages to the public. However, you need to make sure you team works in a agile manner since good timing is of essence for an effective communication in fast evolving situations. Dissent and disagreements within governments should be addressed to ensure all public officials are on the same page on what the message is and what is expected of them. Authorities should ensure that communication activities are coordinated at local, state and federal level and across different agencies.
4. Define your key spokespeople and coordinate messages. Governments should choose spokespeople that are good communicators and that can sound credible and authoritative to audiences. It is important that these people work in a coordinated manner and their messages complement and reinforce each other.
5. Produce and promote content based on reputable sources. It is important that your communications team sets up specific criteria to select sources that will be used for creating and curating content to avoid spreading misinformation. Original content produced must be reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy. It is also vital that content creators have access to experts if specific content is needed to be produced and there is an expedient process to review and approve content inside the team.
6. Use appropriate format, language and tone: When crafting messages governments need to ensure that citizens understand why this is being done, and, above all, why it is important for them to comply. Moreover, since containment measures will require behavioral changes, governments need to provide how-to guides and provide explanations on how citizens can practice social distancing, wash their hands, when and how to self-quarantine, where to search for reputable information, how to work from home, whether or not they should visit a certain park, etc. Governments should not assume citizens will know how to do those things by themselves. The content needs to be clear, simple and written in a friendly way, adapted to specific audiences. For example, if there is a large portion of a given community that is illiterate and with limited access to digital communications, governments should produce flyers and posters and distribute them in these communities. These posters should contain illustrations so these audiences understand what they need to do.
7. Be calm, reassuring, clear and frequent in your communications. The tone of the message is as important as the message itself. When discussing containment measures, the tone of the conversation should be calm and reassuring, to avoid creating panic. There is already a lot of uncertainty caused by the crisis, and governments should be a reassuring and assertive voice to work with citizens in providing a solution. The frequency of the message is also key. Changing behaviors and maintaining those changes over time is a very difficult task. Citizens need to be constantly reminded of what they need to do: frequency and repetition are key.
8. Manage expectations and the public’s anxiety. In their frequent communications, governments should also ensure to communicate progress of the quarantine measures and manage the public’s anxiety. In situations of uncertainty, citizens may behave irrationally. That can make a difficult situation worse. For example, in several countries, citizens began hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizers, causing disruptions in supply. In others, it has caused disruptions in trash collection services and a spike in the consumption of potable water, increasing stress in local systems. Governments must try to anticipate such behaviors and act. On one hand, communicate that is not necessary to hoard food or cleaning products and, on the other, work on contingency plans to ensure provision and continuity of basic services.
9. Identify possible blockers and act. Governments need to recognize that there are structural and economic challenges that can undermine containment measures in our region. With a large share of the working population in the informal sector, living paycheck to paycheck and in unsanitary conditions with limited access to water, it can be hard to make a lot of our citizens to comply. It is crucial that governments recognize those blockers and create solutions that allow citizens to stay at home. Besides measures of direct money transfers being considered at the federal level, local governments should consider partnering with local civil society organizations to distribute food or distribute meals through their public schools, for example, as well as improve the distribution of water in vulnerable communities. These measures should be part of the communication strategy and content to be produced and disseminated. Hoarding food and cleaning supplies should be prevented and local governments should work closely with local retailers to implement measures to prevent hoarding such as limiting the number of items people can buy in one visit. Public spaces such as parks should be closed to prevent public gatherings.
10. Partner with key media outlets and civil society organizations. Governments should also consider creating an extended communications team comprised of local media organizations, civil society organizations and local influencers to help create content and promote and reinforce messages related to the containment measures. These partners could close important content and dissemination gaps and ease the pressure on local governments to produce and disseminate information to citizens.
If you want to learn more about the IDB Group’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, visit our knowledge platform.
 Managing Epidemics, Key Facts About Major Deadly Diseases, WHO, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/managing-epidemics-interactive.pdf
 About 92 million people in the region are extremely poor and another 77 million are moderately poor, according to the IDB Working Paper, “Poverty, Vulnerability and the Middle Class in Latin America,” May 2015).