A very promiscuous and efficient killer
USA Today on individual pandemic planning

Risk communication during a disease outbreak

How government and public health officials communicate with the public during a disease outbreak is critically important.

"Unfortunately, examples abound of communication failures which have delayed outbreak control, undermined public trust and compliance, and unnecessarily prolonged economic, social and political turmoil. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes it is now time to acknowledge that communication expertise has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis."

With that introduction, the WHO launches into a shortlist of best practices for effective communication during a disease outbreak, published as the 8-page WHO Outbreak Communication Guidelines. [453k .pdf] (There's a similar, but more detailed discussion in a 48-page version, also. [1.4Mb .pdf])

As the WHO states, "...risk communication is most effective when it is integrated with risk analysis and risk management." If that integration doesn't exist in your organization, work to make it happen.

If you're a communications professional, you should immediately identify with the information in the Guidelines. Take this short, digestible document to your outbreak manager and use it to stimulate a conversation. (It has the weight of the WHO behind it.)

If you're not a communications professional but have policymaking or outbreak management responsibilities, PLEASE READ THIS and discuss it with the communications professionals in your organization. (Their job titles vary: risk communications, public relations, media relations, community relations, etc.) If they're not already tightly in the loop of your organization's planning and response functions, they should be.

Some key thoughts from the Guidelines:

  • The overriding goal for outbreak communication is to communicate with the public in ways that build, maintain or restore trust. Examples: acknowledge uncertainty about rapidly changing information and future developments. Avoid excessive reassurance.
  • Trust is a two-way street. You must trust the public's ability to tolerate incomplete and sometimes alarming information. Public panic is rare when people have been candidly informed.
  • The parameters of trust are established in the outbreak's first official announcement. This message's timing, candor and comprehensiveness may make it the most important of all outbreak communications.
  • It is best to announce an outbreak as soon as possible, in order to prevent rumors and misinformation. This also gives you the greatest opportunity to "frame the event" - to put the event in proper context and to set the tone for the public dialog.
  • Maintaining the public's trust throughout an outbreak requires transparency (i.e.  communication that is candid, easily understood, complete, and factually accurate). Transparency, by itself, cannot ensure trust. The public must see that competent decisions are being made. But in general, greater transparency results in greater trust.
  • Successful communicators know the other party's frame of reference. In this case, you should understand the public's beliefs, opinions, and knowledge about specific risks. (This is sometimes called "communications surveillance.")
  • Risk communication messages should include information about what the public can do to make themselves safer. This affords people a sense of control over their own health and safety, which in turn allows them to react to the risk with more reasoned responses.
  • Have a risk communication plan ready before it is needed.

The WHO concludes by saying, "The overriding public health goal is to bring the outbreak under control as quickly as possible, with as little social disruption as possible. Effective  outbreak communication is one tool to achieve that goal."

For more on risk communications, see Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard's expert writings. Start with "Pandemic Influenza Risk Communication: The Teachable Moment" or "Superb Flu Pandemic Risk Communication: A Role Model from Australia".