Risk communication strategies in the context of COVID-19

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Dr Su Anson | Head of Innovation & Research
Katrina Petersen | Research Manager

Date: 31 October 2020

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak we have repeatedly been reminded of the important role that effective risk communication plays in response and recovery. The absence of a vaccine has meant that early communications focused on public health guidance to stem virus transmission (lockdown and social distancing, among others). The localised, complex, changing (and often conflicting) nature of COVID-19 messages raise new challenges; challenges that reveal the impact and power of communication breakdown, such as the public taking incorrect and misguided actions as well as losing trust in government advice.

In response to these challenges, members of Trilateral’s Applied Research and Innovation team have co-written an article on risk communication approaches in the context of COVID-19 for The Manchester Briefing  (B22) Week beginning 5th October 2020.

The article examines how the response and risk communication approaches can be collaboratively designed and designed in dialogue with the public, as opposed to broadcasting messages without community engagement. Here, we share some of the key points explored in the article.

Communication as a dialogue

Approaching communication as a dialogue encourages questions like:

  • What response do you need from your audience?
  • What different perceptions of risk might they have?

Working with the public to understand how risk is not uniform or equal can help in finding new ways to communicate the benefits and lower barriers to public compliance with current advice. Collaborating with the public can help create more targeted goals and outcomes, as well as build upon mutual respect of the government’s broader goals; including how the outcomes could, and indeed often should, look different across geographies, socio-economics, and cultures. For example, for some, self-isolation might decrease virus transmission in the community but also increase a family’s food insecurity. This highlights the need to practically identify what it means to provide inclusive information to the public.

Dialogue will also help communicators best consider how messages are communicated, received, understood and acted upon by the audience. It can help them understand when differences are needed in how information is disseminated, by whom, and to whom. There are many existing channels for such two-way engagement efforts.

Diversification in communication channels

The need for on-the-ground engagement can never be overemphasised. In Oldham, Greater Manchester, evidence has shown the effectiveness of having local ‘boots on the ground’ to disseminate information, advice and testing door-to-door; as of mid-August, 80 volunteers have visited 5,500 homes (Figures are correct up to 12th September 2020: https://www.ft.com/content/8a8aaee6-1444-44d6-a2f5-7737968a2928). Street teams went into the community to explain guidance and offer immediate coronavirus tests – and the rate of infection dropped (https://www.ft.com/content/8a8aaee6-1444-44d6-a2f5-7737968a2928).

In the world of social distancing, social media can also be a powerful tool for dialogue. Organisations can analyse the online discussions in their communities to understand the conversations taking place, including conspiracy theories and the spread of misinformation. The effect of misinformation on public risk perceptions is key to appropriate response, considering research shows it travels farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, sometimes by an order of magnitude.(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/09/coronavirus-origins-misinformation-yan-report-fact-check-cvd/).

Understanding how different channels can encourage different types of dialogue, requires different forms of engagement and messages in order to build and maintain public trust which is key to a successful pandemic response. This also requires messaging to be inclusive and accessible for example, for people with disabilities, or English as a second language. Dialogue may also be encouraged via innovative information dissemination through stories, videos, infographics etc.

Reconceptualising risk communication as a process of co-production and active participation of the public – rather than thinking of the public as passive message receivers – can support the design of proportionate and palatable measures that resonate with the public. Collaborating with the public acknowledges that people are wilful actors with agency and have knowledge about their communities and the best way to speak with them.

The full version of the article is available in the Manchester Briefing and can be accessed here.

The article was written in collaboration with Professor Duncan Shaw and Dr. Jennifer Bealt from The Manchester Briefing at The University of Manchester and Inspector Sue Swift from Lancashire Constabulary.

For more information on this research area please contact our team.


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