We’re all currently living though a time of uncertainty and personal crisis, so – while I’m sure you’re growing very used to seeing these words at the top of every email – I hope you and your communities are going okay.
Every day our communication and use of language matters, but during a crisis like this, the impact of communication becomes particularly clear.
We can all have a positive influence on the language and social discourse around this crisis by being mindful about our own conversations and encouraging thoughtful and strategic communication approaches in our own workplace and community groups.
Below are my recommendations for conservation professionals on how to talk about COVID-19, drawing from my own strategic communications experience and some of the fantastic advice and resources published recently online (see below for links).
Be generous and understanding
People are – at the very least – stressed and anxious right now. Many people have lost their jobs, and everyone is going through changes in their lifestyle and work life. Being considerate and aware of what everyone is going through, considering when others may be more seriously impacted than yourself, and making sure this is reflected in the tone and approach of your communications will encourage empathy and remind us that we’re all in this together.
Help to prevent the spread of misinformation by checking your sources before you pass on information. Don’t reshare infographics or lists of recommendations without checking where they come from. Listen to authorities like the World Health Organisation and government departments when it comes to sharing recommendations and guidelines. The stakes for miscommunication of health information are higher in a crisis situation. Individuals may be more susceptible to misinformation, and clear communication around the changing situation and up-to-date advice are vital for an effective coordinated response from the community as a whole.
Be clear on the purpose of your communication
Part of being generous and understanding is being clear on the purpose of your communications. This involves carefully considering who your intended audience is and what exactly you are asking of them (if anything!) and whether this ask is appropriate right now. Having a clear purpose is a key basis for any kind of strategic communication, but it is particularly important during a crisis such as COVID-19, when individuals are being bombarded with sometimes conflicting and highly emotional messages (and even advertisers are using coronavirus to sell).
Most communications around COVID-19 will be aiming to inform or educate the public or encourage compliance with local government recommendations, or (more often) both! There are many different communication approaches and strategies that can be applied for both these aims but for the purposes of this blog post I will discuss two broad kinds of communication: science communication and strategic communication.
Science communication (e.g. increasing public understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, explaining prediction models, debunking myths etc.)
Science communication traditionally uses the knowledge-deficit model: the idea that people will change how they think and behave if they understand the science. In a public health crisis situation like the COVID-19 crisis, this approach can be more effective than usual as members of the public tend to be paying more attention to expert advice and be more likely to take it on board.
Science communication has a crucial role to play in COVID-19 communications, particularly around how the virus spreads, and how individuals can protect themselves and their communities. But effectively and accurately communicating science and health research to the public can be a challenge. Clearly communicating uncertainty and risk can be particularly challenging but it is crucial for helping the public understand the uncertainties around predictive models of the spread of the virus and around the predicted effectiveness of different interventions.
However, since humans do not always behave rationally, we cannot rely entirely on traditional science communication approaches to trigger behavioural changes like compliance with recommendations.
Strategic communication (e.g. increasing public compliance with physical distancing recommendations, fostering a culture of community and optimism)
Strategic communications specifically aim to encourage people to act in a certain way (e.g. physical distancing) or foster a particular message frame or narrative in the media or social discourse. Strategic communication is an umbrella term that encompasses many kinds of purposeful communications approaches, including crisis and risk communication, and public engagement.
In all kinds of strategic communication, you should consider what you want your listeners or readers to do as a result of your message. Will the tone, structure and focus of your message change your audience’s behaviour in a desirable way? For example, it may be tempting to use social media to express your own feelings and opinions about an issue you are passionate about, but if you are ultimately aiming to encourage people to act in a certain way, that may not be the most suitable approach (depending on your audience). Consider carefully your communication goals, your audience and your approach before you post.
It is also worth noting that science communication and strategic communication approaches are not mutually exclusive. Science communication can be strategically designed, and strategic communication can incorporate scientific ideas and concepts into messages.
Be careful with your language
Small changes in the language we use can have substantial impacts on understanding and perceptions around an issue. Below are some common recommendations for language use around COVID-19. Check out the further reading links or check out Dr Suzanne Wertheim’s Twitter thread below for more detail and research around these tips.
- Describe numbers of detected cases as “known cases” instead of “cases”
- Make human agency explicit by describing how “we spread the virus by going outside” rather than “the virus is spreading itself”
- Use social norming (i.e. make it about me, us, we, our community) to make the issue personally and socially relevant, and communicate how “most Australians are doing the right thing by staying home” rather than saying “people aren’t staying home!” (us humans like doing what other people are doing!)
- Describe staying at home as “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” to convey how we still want people to stay connected and social but taking care of each other by staying away
- Emphasise kindness, community and cooperation rather than fear, othering or panic
Linguist here. It looks like one of our biggest issues in this pandemic is convincing people that:
1. it is deadly serious
2. the consequences of their actions may be life or death.
I have some suggestions about how to talk about #COVID19 to help with this message. /1
— Dr. Suzanne Wertheim is staying home/washing hands (@WorthwhileRandC) March 24, 2020
Can we still talk about biodiversity and climate change?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus is already having a dramatic impact on our everyday life, and many jurisdictions have declared states of emergency. So in the short term, we need to carefully consider the relevance and appropriateness of our conservation messaging and be especially sensitive to the personal and social context of the individuals we are trying to engage.
However, it is worth being aware of situations in which conservation work and messaging continues to be needed. For example, with climate talks being postponed and the public focused on COVID-19, we run the risk of important actions being delayed or ignored. Our experience with the current crisis may even be a taste of what is to come in future climate crises.
Where do we want this story to go?
Looking long term, it now seems undeniable that coronavirus is changing the world, and the social context in which we continue to research and work will be different even if we eventually return ‘back to normal’.
As conservation scientists we don’t want to see COVID-19 create a new social and narrative context where taking action on issues like biodiversity conservation or climate change are even more difficult. As communicators, we need to think about where we want the story to go. Perhaps economic reform as a result of COVID-19 could also make progress towards a more sustainable future? Perhaps rather than bouncing back, we can bounce forward after coronavirus?
We can start to lay the foundation for these conversations now by avoiding comparing crises (e.g. by lamenting that biodiversity conservation hasn’t had the same response as COVID-19) and focus instead on needing kindness and cooperation, and scientific expertise. Some current responses to COVID-19 convey border control and security message frames, which don’t set a healthy narrative context for action for biodiversity conservation or climate change.
By focusing instead on humanity’s ability to band together in the face of an existential crisis, and asking people to continue to have courage, we allow the space for future calls for action to tackle climate change. By highlighting that we have been able to make changes to our way of life when called for, we increase public perceptions of our collective impact and strengthen our own self-belief that we can make meaningful change.
In doing this we foster a narrative of cooperation amidst a crisis, where we listen to the advice of experts, and are able to find solutions to complex and global problems, setting the stage for progress towards a more sustainable future.
Further reading recommendations
Key sources of information:
- World Health Organisation
- Australian Government’s Department of Health
- Australian National Coronavirus Hotline
How to talk about COVID-19:
- How to talk about the coronavirus, Liz Neeley, The Atlantic
- Accurate, honest and transparent: how leaders should communicate about coronavirus, Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane, The Guardian
- How Not to Lose the COVID-19 Communication War, Dietram A. Scheufele, Nicole M. Krause, Isabelle Freiling, Dominique Brossard, Slate
- How to Talk About COVID-19: Narratives to Support Good Decision-Making and Collective Action, The Workshop
COVID-19, nature and the climate
- COVID-19 is not a silver lining for the climate, says UN Environment chief, UN News
- Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change, Natasha Chassagne, The Conversation
- The Pandemic Is Turning the Natural World Upside Down, Marina Koren, The Atlantic
Maintaining your mental health and adjusting to a new work and home life:
- Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-inspired Productivity Pressure, Aisha S. Ahmad, The Chronicle of Higher Education
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review
- Ten Tips From Scientists Who Have Spent Months in Isolation, Emily Matcher, Smithsonian Magazine