Public Health Communications Guidance during the Pandemic

April 2, 2020

Teresa Guillien is leading Resource Media’s public and global health programs out of our Seattle office. With the global pandemic ramping up, she is focusing on helping our partners with their communications – from crisis and reputation management at the C-suite level to nimble on-the-ground responses by public health workers on the front lines. We interviewed her to learn more about what our heroic health partners are doing and what advice she is giving them.

What advice are you giving to people working on public health issues? Should they continue with communications as usual, or should they adjust course? 

We are all searching for certainty right now, so giving the answer, “It depends,” may not be an answer people want to hear. But, it does depend on how connected your issue is to the COVID-19 crisis. If you are working on communications that are essential to human health and safety figure out how to communicate that information while recognizing how the world has changed, especially in places where active shelter-in-place or quarantines are being ordered. If your issue is not essential in terms of health and safety, you might consider using your communication channels to boost information coming from your local health department and the CDC.  

And, fear not, just because you spend several weeks or a month using your channels amplifying COVID-19 health messaging, it is unlikely to negatively affect your communications goals over the long term. Instead, it will show that you are a critical resource for your audiences and are prioritizing a significant public health crisis over “business-as-usual” communications.

What are your recommended best practices for communicating about the pandemic in a way that people understand?

COVID-19 and the epidemiological spread of infection can be hard to understand, even to those with health expertise. Some aspects may seem counterintuitive. At the same time, we have new information we are learning every day. Rather than share information about the science behind COVID-19, emphasize and repeat core public health advice such as recommending people stay at home, wash their hands thoroughly and often and take other protective steps. 

Just as with all of your messaging, be as concrete as possible. What people can do and why should they do that? For example, instead of advising in a conceptual way, “Practice social distancing,” offer a clear visual statement like, “Stay at home. Shop once a week.”  

Third, don’t overwhelm people with information. You don’t need to share out every last statistic or news development. Information overload can add to the current confusion. We have seen it go both ways:  we can inadvertently give a false sense of security or a false sense of alarm. If you are thoughtful and consistent, you will be doing good for the community.

Here are excellent fact sheets and other resources from the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project.

How do we plan for future communications when we don’t know what will come?

Throw out your annual communication plans! Instead, we recommend creating monthly or quarterly short-term plans. Be nimble. One-page plans are definitely still plans! Come up with short-term actions that you can do now that can help get you closer toward your long-term communication goals, even if you are not spending time now talking with your audiences about your traditional priority issues. For example, if you are working on oral health issues, you could create fun educational materials for parents to use with their kids who are home, rather than producing public service announcements. Recognize how your community members’ lives have changed, how they are spending their time, and adjust your communications to match this new reality.