How PR can fight misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak

by | Mar 5, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

On December 31, all eyes turned to Wuhan, China where the first case of a new Coronavirus was officially reported. One month later, the virus had seemingly spread to 18 countries where people began showing signs of infection, giving cause for the World Health Organization (WHO) to officially declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a rare distinction given only five other times to disease outbreaks that posed particular international threat.

Since then, this strain of Coronavirus—or COVID-19 as it’s been named—has tested health systems, economies and communities around the world. While the WHO hesitates to classify it as a pandemic, the virus has now crossed more than 50 borders—including the first case reported in sub-Saharan Africa and a case of unknown origin in the United States—with more than 80,000 cases reported and killed 2,804 people. As the stock exchange takes a major hit, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned Americans to brace for “significant disruption.”

Little is actually known about COVID-19, but it has become ubiquitous, grabbing international attention and headlines. As the number of cases reported continues to rise and we brace for what feels like a certain pandemic, the outbreak is only complicated by the rapid spread of misinformation.

The problem is that, in an age of global connectivity, the speed at which information—both accurate and exaggerated—is spreading is far outpacing the investigations being conducted and what experts actually understand about the virus. And, as each news cycle brings an update on rising caseloads and deaths, travel bans and quarantined cruise-goers, consumers are left with little more than panic as we consider a pandemic of apocalyptic levels.

Strong, reliable and evidence-based communications is critical to make sure that accurate information breaks through this noise and resonates with consumers and communities. But accurate information means little if it is not also trusted. There are a number of things that we, as communicators, can and should be doing to ensure this happens.

The Digital Divide

As we’ve seen with the anti-vaxxer movement, digital and social media platforms have the powerful ability to promote a counter-narrative built on inaccurate, often emotionally charged, information. Even in the presence of evidence, this can result in a divide between accurate and not-so accurate information, creating a rift in communities.

The WHO has begun working with tech companies and social media giants to tackle misinformation by helping to ensure accurate and reliable information penetrates online dialogue and populates search engine results when consumers search for the latest information or remedy. This approach is important, but communicators must also work to combat the underlying algorithms that continue to fill our screens with false information and our minds with a contagion-like plotline. As an industry, we have an opportunity to leverage these social and digital platforms for good, as powerful tools to support compelling campaigns that shape a new narrative.

It’s All About Context

We know that shock and fear sell a better story, but in the time of an outbreak, it’s critical that we help shape a broader picture of the situation by providing the fuller context.

Recently, an updated reporting protocol in the Hubei province led to an overnight spike in cases that captured imaginations around the world. Unfortunately, the cause of this spike was largely absent from coverage, leaving consumers to assume that this unknown virus was far more powerful than we’d thought. Similarly, a more direct look at the fatality rate of COVID-19, as compared to other outbreaks, might help to assuage concerns of its ability to wipe out modern societies. The fact remains that, while it does appear to be incredibly infectious, its fatality rate is relatively low. The Coronavirus outbreak reminds us that we can’t take the numbers at face value as broader context and perspective are often missing.

Be Honest About What We Know

In an outbreak, trust is paramount. But in a quickly evolving space, where little is known, it’s tough to come by. There is fear in the unknown, but there is also power in it. When we are honest about what is known—and what is not—rather than skirting the issue, we are able to more effectively own the story and build trust. By stating exactly what is known, we can help to blunt dangerous rumors and speculation. But when we don’t address the unknown head on, we leave space for misinformation to penetrate and prevail in the minds of millions. In the absence of information, communities will seek it where they can find it. By addressing, honestly, the unknown, we can help to curtail this.

Consider Societal Implications

Misinformation about infection—its source, cause, mode of transmission, virulence, fatality rate, etc.—carry serious implications for societies. Beyond our physical health, misinformation can inform beliefs that shape behaviors and form—or perpetuate—misconceptions about entire communities and cultures. Rampant misinformation about Coronavirus is fueling xenophobia and stigma that threatens physical, verbal and financial harm to the Asian community. As communicators, we must think beyond any one outbreak to consider its implications and the way we are communicating about it on our societies, and the role we play to help keep them intact.

Coronavirus is reminding us of the importance of our multifaceted industry to help shape a narrative that strikes a nuanced balance that at once inspires a sense of urgency, assuages panic and avoids apathy. After all, misinformation is fueled not simply by the absence of information, but by the absence of information that is trusted and reliable.

Trey Watkins
Trey Watkins, MPH, is Senior Vice President, Global Health & Corporate Responsibility, at GCI Health.


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