How to frame messages in an epidemic – I

Tell the truth; be transparent

source: the US CDC CERC (CRISIS + EMERGENCY RISK COMMUNICATION WALLET CARD: https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/resources/pdf/cerc_wallet-card_english.pdf

The world is now grappling with another global epidemic: the coronavirus, COVID-19.

The risk communication is very critical during epidemics. Its importance is apparent now more than ever.

Providing factually correct messages is necessary but not adequate; the messages need to be framed in ways relevant to the intended audience and persuasive enough to change into the recommended behaviors.

Based on recent past experience with the SARS and Ebola virus types, the World Health Organization (WHO), US CDC, European Union, and almost all countries have developed comprehensive evidence-based guidelines, manuals, training modules, etc.

This post summarizes the relevant sections of these documents while citing those references where relevant.

Steps in framing messages in an epidemic

The US CDC recommends to include the following components when formulating messages with regard to the epidemic irrespective of its mode of delivery, either orally, in writing, or in any other media.

Begin with empathy

  • Acknowledge the target audience’s concerns by saying/writing.
  • Either write or say something similar to this: “we are aware that you are anxious and worried and we care and working to understand their perspective more”.
  • In fact, we need to include contact methods to demonstrate to them that we really care and should promote asking questions.

Identify and explain the threat

  • Mention “what is causing the threat, who is at risk, and what causes someone to be at risk”;
  • “What to do to prevent the harm and to get help if needed”;
  • “Acknowledge uncertainties”;
  • “Do not over-reassure or over-promise”

Explain what is currently known and unknown

  • Provide exact details and timelines
  • Admit what is unknown at the moment saying, “we do not have sufficient information yet and we will inform you as soon as we obtain those details without holding back.
  • Explain what is being done to minimize harm

Explain what actions are being taken and why as well as the actions that are not being taken and why

  • Explain the agencies involved, their roles and responsibilities
  • Share dilemmas, be open with making decisions on imperfect and incomplete information
  • Explain possible undesired consequences, if anticipated
  • Let the media know the assumptions and the possibility of changing recommendations in the future based on new information

Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) Wallet Card

The US CDC CERC had produced an extremely useful wallet card that, I believe every professional responsible should carry. Anyone can access to it through this link:https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/resources/pdf/cerc_wallet-card_english.pdf

Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

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