Must have best practices for online Coronavirus messaging

Eric Singer

As of this Flash Briefing, the Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic, which means there’s a worldwide spread of a new disease. With me on the PAST Fusion Cell News Line was Jeannette Sutton, Communication Professor and Director of the Risk and Disaster Communication Center at the University of Kentucky.

Professor Sutton has been part of extensive messaging research about two other diseases that made headlines, Zika and Ebola. Her studies on those two other high-profile events have direct bearing on the way that public information and emergency management professionals can keep verified information about COVID-19 flowing: “We conducted research on public health organizations on how information was being shared on social media, their Twitter stream.” Professor Sutton’s focus was on the best ways to push  messages out and how the public passed them along to others: “When we were looking at the messages, we noticed that there were specific things that communicators were doing to influence their messages to go farther in other people’s networks.” Professor Sutton says that includes using key words, IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, that draw attention to what people should do: “During events that are really uncertain and people are searching for information that is clear is the time that risk communicators need to include information, not just about the hazard, its spread and who is most susceptible, but also what people can do to protect themselves.” 

With the Coronavirus pandemic and fear in the United States, Professor Sutton believes there is a way to link the public to your messaging: “In this case what we are seeing is people want to know why. People are trying to understand, for example, why is social distancing so important? It’s helping them understand the epidemiology of the disease and how it’s transmitted from person to person and who the most vulnerable people are in the community. A greater understanding of why people need to distance themselves will help people to come back to your channel for information and it’s likely to increase their knowledge and understanding of why to carry out the recommended protective actions.”

Professor Sutton also firmly believes: “Over the next few weeks as people are being self-quarantined at home, we are going to see a lot of people turning to social media for information. Emergency management professionals can’t just post once a day. They need to be part of the communication ecology and actively putting out information regularly so that people can see that those messages are out there on a routine basis. In the absence of information, people will look for that information elsewhere. It’s absolutely vital that you as the public health and government source become the broker of verified information.”

You can listen to the whole Flash Briefing interview with Professor Sutton by clicking on the Mp3 link below.

Flash Briefing – March 13, 2020

More resources for online messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic are available at: