Not since World War II have people across the globe been so united in fear as now, when the COVID-19 pandemic dominates headlines and daily realities.
People are fearful of catching the virus and anxious about spreading it. And they’re worried about its economic and social impacts. When people are scared, they look for expert advice which is relevant to their own situations. Therefore, virologists, epidemiologists and researchers who work on communicable diseases are in high demand on news channels. So too are specialists in data science who can model the spread of the disease. People also want to hear from social scientists, economists and psychologists about the impacts of COVID-19 on our lives.
But this also means that people are constantly receiving information from many – and often conflicting – sources. They may feel overwhelmed by a deluge of data and opinions. Facing information overload, they may find it difficult to decide what to read, who to listen to and who to trust.
Effective science communication during a pandemic, then, is literally a matter of life or death. This is neatly summarised by The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its advice on crisis and emergency risk communication:
During an emergency, the right message, from the right person, at the right time can save lives.
For science communicators to be effective, best practice principles need to be applied to the design of their messages, the choice of who conveys those messages, as well as the tone and timing of messages.
So, what are science communication experts saying at a time like this? Much of their advice is drawn from what communication experts have learned from earlier health crises. Their recommendations are also based on an understanding of risk communication principles, especially with regard to how they apply during a public health crisis.
Designing the right message
Designing clear messages requires a good understanding of the target audiences and what matters to them. The World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights that disease outbreaks can be alarming, disruptive and unpredictable. So it’s crucial to understand and acknowledge the concerns of the people who will be receiving the message.
Research into what makes people care about science messages points out that people will only respond to “calls for action” if these are clear, meaningful and feasible. If you want people to wash their hands regularly with soap and water, you must help them to understand why hand washing matters, and how it can help to combat the spread of the coronavirus. You also must provide alternatives for people who may not have sufficient access to soap and clean water.
But it’s important to keep it succinct: it’s possible to over-burden people with information.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented case of public communication of science happening in a compressed time frame where scientists share new information as it comes to light. It is inevitable that expert opinion will be refined as scientists gain a better understanding of the novel virus we are dealing with. This means that transparency is a major factor. That includes admitting what experts do and don’t know yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US advises communicators to be open and honest about uncertainties and acknowledge when they do not have enough information to answer a specific question.
Using visuals and infographics can be a powerful way of helping people to digest information and to connect with an idea. When it comes to designing posters and brochures, a bright, clear design with as little text as possible, along with clear branding, works best.
The right person, speaking with compassion
Understanding people’s perceptions, concerns and needs also means identifying the people they most trust to deliver those messages. For example, community activists who are known and trusted locally have been found to be the best people to mobilise South African communities behind public health messages.
It is also crucial that trusted scientific experts, but also experts in local knowledge, are identified and supported to convey messages and explain uncertainties.
Top communication experts agree that it’s important to show empathy when communicating about a crisis. This is underscored by research that underlines the importance of empathy.
Whoever communicates a message must assure people that their concerns and feelings are recognised and taken seriously. Never dismiss people as ignorant or irrational; rather try to understand why they respond or behave in ways that may not be in line with what scientists expect.
Timing is key
The WHO guidelines emphasise the importance of announcing new information as soon as possible, while also ensuring that messages are accurate and easy to understand.
This is a cornerstone to risk communication. But, it’s also important to be careful about reporting on scientific progress and raising people’s hopes prematurely. An example is the public’s reaction to suggestions that chloroquine could be a possible treatment for COVID-19.
New information about the incubation period and transmission process for COVID-19 and new treatments is emerging every day. Many of these studies are yet to be peer-reviewed and scientists are walking a tightrope between providing urgent answers and doing robust research. It is a vital part of science communication to explain how science works and is the reason it may sometimes take longer before scientists reach consensus and are able to give definite answers.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us starkly of how much we depend on science and scientific expertise for finding solutions to acute challenges. It also highlights the invaluable role of journalists and science communicators who are able to empower people with relevant, timely and clear messages that help to navigate their lives during a challenging time.