The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) presented an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, which placed enormous pressures on communities and caused major disruption to lives and well-being. In addition, the pandemic also challenged the ways in which governments communicate with the public .
COVID-19 has illustrated the adverse consequences of a failure by governments to communicate properly. At the onset of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that a lack of trust in governments’ health messaging and accompanying behavioural change guidelines risked undermining efforts to control local transmissions. A study by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI found that mixed messages by senior political figures and unclear guidelines also significantly contributed to low levels trust in the information provided by governments.
While there have been several challenges relating to trust in government communications during the pandemic, behavioural science presents an opportunity for governments to improve COVID-19 communication. Understanding the factors that influence public perception is key to enhancing community resilience, building trust and minimising the spread of misinformation, while also increasing the probability of adherence to health guidelines.
Communicating during a pandemic
One of the most effective public health interventions in any emergency event is proactive communication that enhances community resilience. Enhancing resilience helps ensure that communities are able to withstand and recover from disruptions, while also minimising the adverse consequences of an outbreak. How risks are communicated and understood serves to amplify public health messages and helps ensure that communities take the necessary protective measures.
COVID-19 is expected to become an ongoing feature of life. Governments must therefore put in place strategies that are able to respond to sporadic spikes and cluster outbreaks likely to be localised within certain communities. The following recommendations sketch out the five steps that governments should adopt when applying community resilience principles to their COVID-19 communication strategies.
The Five Step Approach: enhancing community resilience to government COVID-19 communication
Step 1. Build trust.
- Understand how social norms influence perceptions and behaviours. Prioritise relationships with trusted community influencers and ensure that communication is delivered with an empathetic and compassionate tone.
Step 2. Establish channels for two-way communication.
- Involve trusted community influencers in messaging design, and establish systems of listening to the concerns, attitudes and beliefs of communities. Ensure that communication materials are customised to specific local needs and delivered through preferred channels.
Step 3. Apply behavioural insights.
- Clearly outline the behaviour changes required to tackle COVID-19 outbreaks, and “who needs to do what, when, where”. Ensure that communities “have the capability, opportunity, and motivation” to follow them.
Step 4. Counter misinformation.
- Prioritise consistency, factuality and transparency in government communication as a way of countering misinformation. Provide scientific evidence to counter the spread of possible hoaxes and rumours that could undermine trust in key messages.
Step 5. Monitor, evaluate and adjust message.
- Embed mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the impact of governments’ COVID-19 communication strategies on behavioural indicators. This will allow governments to adjust key messaging in response to changes in the information needs of communities.
The Five Step Approach responds to the evolving nature of a community’s recovery in a time of COVID-19, again emphasising the need for targeted communications. If governments are to enhance community resilience, there must be an understanding of the impact that different forms of communicative relationships allow communities to adapt in times of crisis. This approach offers governments insights into how people interact and engage with information provided and how partnerships for local action can be developed.
This piece was written by Suta Kavari as part of our Academic Partnership with Oxford Blavatnik School of Government