It’s been near impossible to avoid mentions of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which has hit headlines worldwide in recent weeks, with the World Health Organisation declaring it a global public health emergency and the situation evolving on an hourly basis.
Responding to any crisis is challenging, let alone one on an international scale, and particularly when public health is at risk.
It’s at times like this, when I think about the communications teams in the NHS or emergency services. On most normal days, they are inundated with press enquiries; however, the level of interest goes off the scale during a crisis. My first communications job was working in the press office of Gloucestershire’s police headquarters, so I know just how stressful it can be when an emergency strikes. Any unexpected situation needs calm handling with a focus on communicating vital information and core messages clearly, succinctly and consistently. Success means getting the official guidance across, offering support to the public and crucially helping to prevent panic.
In an era of misinformation and fake news, it’s never been more important to take ownership of the official advice and carefully communicate the key points.
The coronavirus is presenting the Government with the need to control information and simplify an important message that requires action. A virus of the sort we’re seeing now is a particular challenge – it’s frightening, and it requires attention from the public.
The NHS has done a great job of keeping its advice simple; in fact, the NHS has used one particular piece of advice for years, which has now been extended to provide prevention advice for the coronavirus. Catch it, bin it, kill it is the official advice by Public Health England and the NHS on how the public should respond to help prevent catching the coronavirus or slow the spread of almost any germs. Using the same messaging used for colds and flu means it’s less likely to be seen as something frightening; the familiar, achievable and succinct advice is probably something people are already doing, or acts as a useful reminder to take action. This fact-based and uncomplicated approach should also help to prevent panic, loss of trust and take ownership of the official advice – a model for good crisis communications.
So, spare a thought for our hardworking comms teams within the NHS. Communicating a crisis can be more challenging than some may realise, so they should be recognised for their role in helping us all to keep calm and carry on.
Pippa Hanson is a senior account manager at Camargue