Swift, clear, and accurate public health crisis communication plans prevent disasters from spiraling — and they save lives. According to the American Psychological Association, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, messaging played a key role in controlling the disease’s spread, as well as improving people’s understanding of the crisis.
An advanced degree program, such as a Master of Public Health in Disaster Management, can give students an in-depth understanding of crisis communication planning and equip them with the expertise to uphold the important, potentially lifesaving responsibility of crisis communication.
During a public health emergency, a crisis communication plan enables public health professionals to deliver information that helps people act on behalf of their physical and mental health and well-being. Messaging refers to persuasive communication designed to change health-related behaviors. Messengers are the government leaders and health professionals responsible for reaching out to the public.
Strategic public health crisis communication planning allows authorities, such as public health practitioners, government researchers, and scientists, to devise and deliver effective messaging when information is limited, obsolete, or changing rapidly.
Effective messaging has many benefits in a public health emergency, including:
- Overcoming reluctance to seek help in a crisis
- Reaching diverse populations through culturally competent means
- Reducing distress and fostering hope for recovery
In any disaster, the consequences of ineffective messaging are magnified. They include:
- Decreased help-seeking
- Increased mistrust
- Increased stigmatization of marginalized groups
- Decreased tendency to support one’s community
The need for powerful crisis communication is clear, yet implementing an actionable crisis communication plan is challenging. According to the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, in the face of information overload, the public struggles to determine which sources to believe.
Miscommunication makes crises worse. Identifying ways to reach, guide, and motivate people during a rapidly evolving disaster can help public health professionals develop better crisis communication plans. Seven strategies follow.
People receive news and information in a host of ways, from social media to television, radio, podcasts, and websites. Many media outlets cater to niche audiences. Developing a strategy for a coordinated public health crisis communication plan across multiple outlets is key to reaching a wide audience in an emergency.
The elements of a diverse, coordinated approach to disaster response communication during a public health emergency follow:
- Maintain direct and constant communication: Being direct fosters transparency and a sense of trust; a free flow of information allows all stakeholders to act on the most current information available.
- Deliver a unified message: Ensuring that the message is consistent lessens confusion and keeps the communication focus on crisis response rather than on correcting contradictory content.
- Deliver a message backed by evidence: Public health crisis communications should be evidence based, not only for credibility but also so the public can follow the reasoning behind a recommendation and become more likely to act on it.
- Communicate through a wide variety of media outlets: Different media outlets cater to different audiences. Sending out messaging to multiple outlets ensures more people will receive it quickly and be able to act on it.
- Make communications concise: Decision-makers need messaging they can digest quickly and put into action without delay; messages that are overloaded with details might go unheeded, take too much time to understand, or cause misunderstandings.
Public health professionals creating a crisis communication plan should find credible leaders to endorse their messages. According to the Journal of Community Health, the public tends to trust public health crisis communication when the person endorsing it is a health official and when the information is not perceived as politicized.
Creators of crisis communication plans also do well to consider the attitudes of a particular community regarding who is a credible messenger. A respected academic or government official might not be the best spokesperson for groups who prefer messengers from their own communities.
The Journal of Community Health adds, “Community leaders, such as family doctors, are also trusted sources of crisis communication, whereas media and government officials face distrust because of perceived sensationalized information, and defensiveness and unreliable information respectively.”
Messaging can make matters worse when it creates misunderstanding among, or is inaccessible to, already vulnerable populations. According to the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, vulnerable groups have seen disproportionately negative outcomes from faulty crisis communication plans in response to the COVID‐19 pandemic.
A vulnerable group is more likely to suffer from a public health crisis than less vulnerable populations. Vulnerable groups include:
- People with low incomes
- Older people
- People who are experiencing housing insecurity
- People with preexisting health conditions
Even though vulnerable groups stand to benefit most from the implementation of timely, clear, and accurate public health crisis communication plans, they have experienced “communication gaps” instead, notably during the COVID-19 pandemic, JCCM notes.
Ways crisis communication planners can improve communication with vulnerable groups include:
- Limiting misinformation through community education
- Fostering inclusive decision-making
- Building trust in credible sources
- Communicating risks clearly and honestly
Crisis communication planners should address problems uniquely associated with vulnerable groups. Such populations may have limited access to typical communication outlets, such as television or the internet. Messengers should contact vulnerable groups via a communication channel they can access.
Scientists are ethically bound to admit uncertainty; however, this can hinder crisis communication unless communicators have a strategic plan that normalizes scientific uncertainty.
According to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, “Communication strategies that can inform the public about scientific uncertainty while mitigating ambiguity aversion are a critical unmet need.”
Ambiguity aversion, according to JMIR, results when the public feels overwhelmed by too much uncertainty surrounding a health crisis, such as not being able to know for sure exactly how effective a vaccine will be. Ambiguity aversion syndrome involves:
Heightened sense of risk Emotional distress Decision avoidance
Research reported by JMIR points to the value of educating people about the expectedness of scientific uncertainty.
Whether it’s an honest misunderstanding or a falsehood intentionally planted, wrong information can spread quickly in a crisis. When that happens, large public health organizations can often be bound by policies that prevent them from responding quickly with the correct information.
According to research reported in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, public health professionals in charge of crisis communication plans need to battle misinformation and disinformation. How? First, they can continue to consistently deliver current and factual information to maintain public trust. Second, as soon as wrong information begins to spread, they can point out why it is incorrect and why its source might have been motivated to spread it.
Crisis communications plans are designed to be responded to, but without expressing empathy and concern for the public’s well-being, a communication plan will likely fail. People can be reluctant to act on advice from someone they feel doesn’t care about them.
Crisis communication messengers can express empathy by highlighting messaging that recognizes people’s hardships and demonstrating plans to help. For example, they can share stories about the struggles of people who lost jobs due to a public health crisis and how they got assistance and support.
Another way to create an emotional connection with crisis communication messaging is to praise people who have followed that messaging. Holding up others as positive examples can encourage audiences to start or maintain positive health behaviors of their own.
Effective crisis communication plans call for action. Public health professionals should consider any obstacles that may exist to the public behavioral changes they want to see. Framing a message strategically is central to empowering people to act.
For example, according to Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, “Communications strategies that suggest people should ‘calm down’ imply that some people are in a panic, potentially creating further anxiety. The statement that ‘we are getting on top of the crisis’ is a positive message but reinforces a crisis. Thus, if the intention is to instil calmness and optimism, the framing of ‘we are on the road to recovery’ may be preferable.”
A successful public health and disaster crisis communications professional reaches target audiences speedily, clearly, and accurately — serving the public good and saving lives.
Interested in exploring crisis communication plan strategies for disaster management leaders? Looking to extend the reach of your public health communication expertise to ensure everyone gets vital information when they need it most, now and into the future?
You can gain competency in translating swiftly evolving policies and guidelines into clear and actionable public health messaging during disasters. Discover how Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health in Disaster Management develops the skills to respond to natural and human-made crises, local and global, through its focused courses, including Disaster and Emergency Communication. Become a messenger for change.