Crisis Communication

“There are a lot of special things about outbreaks, but most important is that they're unfolding events. Nobody really knows where they're going and, especially in the beginning, there's high outrage and high concern in the absence of knowing what the hazard is”

– Dick Thompson, Team Leader, WHO Pandemic and Outbreak Communication

Any expert in crisis communication will tell an inquiring reporter that maintaining public trust is the most important pillar of successful outbreak communication.

Trust in authorities will prevent people from panicking. It will enable individuals to better cope with their fears, act more rationally, and support each other. It will allow people to accept more drastic measures such as quarantines and school closings.

But which messages build public trust during an outbreak, and which ones undermine it? What do we know about how people respond to messages about danger? Do we understand how people’s feelings about certain risks influence both their perception of those dangers and their reaction to the measures taken to control those dangers?

In this chapter, six experts look at outbreak communication from various angles and areas of expertise. They explain how journalists can come to terms with uncertainty as they cover a disease that at least initially is poorly understood and what every journalist should know about risk and how to write about it.

Two communications specialists—one from WHO, another from the CDC—talk frankly about the challenges they face; and what they want journalists to know about how they operate during an outbreak. Also, we learn how people might react in various stages of a pandemic and why authorities hope that the new concept of “psychological first aid” will help manage panic in a more severe pandemic.

It is crucial for journalists to think about all these elements of outbreak communication, for when covering a pandemic, the news media inevitably become a part of the risk-communication world.

For examples of how some journalists have thought about and dealt with this challenge, see Pandemic Reporting »

Editor’s note:
The content of this chapter was originally generated during talks and discussions at the December 2006 Nieman Conference “The Next Big Health Crisis—And How to Cover It.”

Read edited transcripts of the conference as printed in Nieman Reports »