04 Oct 2022

The role of PR in tackling pandemics

The Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the need for coordinated communication to citizens across the globe.

With the disease infecting even the some of the healthiest individuals, and leading to millions around the world in intensive care or dying, there was a very real sense of panic and fear as global institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) and individual national governments tried to issue calm and offer considered advice.

However, the interconnectedness of today’s world, in a way that did not exist for previous pandemics, meant that there was ample opportunity for rumour and misinformation to spread.

In this situation, what was required was communication that was able to provide concise, clear and accurate information whilst also maintaining a level of optimism, and a sense that the decisions that governments and organisations made would truly have a positive outcome.

We set out below what we think some of the key communications learnings are from how the world approached Covid-19.

The spread misinformation and disinformation

What we saw during the pandemic was unprecedented amounts of misinformation and disinformation spreading around the globe.

No one knew enough about the virus, and how it might act or spread. Whilst scientists were called to give their views, the lack of real ‘experts’ on the issue in the early days, led to scores of ‘armchair experts’ voicing their opinions on social (and even mainstream) media. It became increasingly hard to tell which information was accurate, and what was merely conjecture.

The World Health Organization declared that it was fighting an ‘info-demic’ – an overabundance of information both on and offline. Indeed, at the beginning of the pandemic it was estimated that a Covid-19 related Tweet was being posted every 45 milliseconds. And, with social media having the power to make a post go viral in seconds, rumours and conspiracy theories were able to spread globally, creating a further sense of uncertainty and ever-growing unease about what would happen next.

Instead, what we needed was a strong, clear message from the centre. Effective communications should be able to take complex and inherently inaccessible information and make it understandable to the general public. As the pandemic developed, there was a very real need to provide clear and transparent information, as vague and non-verified information had the power to impact an individual’s perception of the virus and how they should respond.

In cases such as these, it is important that the communications state openly and honestly what is both known and unknown – and backing it up with facts. And, when it comes to ‘facts’, it is important to communicate from the outset that these may alter as more data becomes available. So, when recommendations change, it can be emphasised that this has been decided on new evidence.

Government approach to communications with their citizens

The lack of a single approach to tackling the pandemic by governments also acted to blur the picture. Whilst citizens in one country were able to go outside, others found themselves quarantined for weeks on end. Increasingly, governments went back and forth on their approach to Covid-19, and this fostered growing resentment amongst communities. This lack of a single, co-ordinated approach as to how governments should advise their citizens only led to more uncertainty, rumours and misinformation being spread.

Discussions on social media continued to bleed across into the 24-hour news cycle. News reporters began to report more of the online discourse, and there was a growing sense of mistrust from the public, and the perception that no one really knew how to turn the tide against the growing number of Covid-19 cases.

This could have been countered with consistent and specific information. Even if we acknowledge that there are elements that we do not yet know or understand, it is important to steer away from any form of vagueness. This is because ambiguity can lead to populations being less likely to follow advice and recommendations (such as social distancing and wearing masks) as the perceived threat is low.

Additionally, consistent messaging lowers the risk of rumours and theories, as spokespeople are repeating the same information with the same language, leaving little leeway for the public to misinterpret.

Communicating science to a global population

In a global health crisis, public attitudes towards science can be a matter of life and death.

When Covid-19 vaccines first started to be rolled out, there were two opposing responses. For some the vaccines were a welcome way out of the pandemic; but for others the vaccines were rushed, ineffective or a form of government control – which gave way to distrust in expert institutions and public scepticism.

There are many conspiracy theories and myths around the Covid-19 vaccines. In order to suppress these, clear communication on how vaccines work and examples of past successes (such as the eradication of Smallpox and Polio) should be relayed in simple terms to the general public – before a vaccine has been cleared for use. This prevention tactic helps the population to understand why a vaccine is required to beat a disease, whilst also demonstrating examples of efficacy and success.

When a vaccine is to be deployed, it is also important to be transparent around the outcome of clinical trials, acknowledging both successes and side-effects. This helps to subdue fear around the ‘unknown’, whilst also maintaining trust between scientific institutions and the general public. A lack of transparency can easily give way to a host of rumours, so it is crucial that honesty is established from the start.

Finally, in overcoming the challenge of vaccine hesitancy and increasing uptake, establishing a clear line of communication between the public and experts can make the difference. Local governments can hold accessible question and answer sessions that allow the public to ask questions directly to a panel of medical professionals, who can share their expertise, the impact of the disease on a community, and why vaccination is important.

Indeed, as in many types of communications, by putting a human face to engagement, people are more likely to give a message a fair hearing.

By Chris Calland, Associate Partner, Pagefield (recently joined from Astra Zeneca).

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