Rarely has the comms world seen an issue such as this global pandemic, coronavirus, which cuts across all geographical borders regardless of cultures and language.
Yet reactions in different countries have been very varied.
From Wuhan and Italy, which cordoned themselves off, to America which has banned visitors from selected Shengen countries, to the UK where we are being asked to self isolate if we have a ‘new cough’ or a fever. It has not been possible to have a united global front to counter this new virus. Thus each country has had to find its own way of communicating with its citizens.
Fast, accurate and effective communication is never more vital than at a time of a global crisis. Yet when something new and frightening emerges, such as coronavirus or COVID-19 as it is also known, it often results in peculiarly fertile ground where myths, misinformation and fake news thrive.
During such times the role of the professional communicator is a hugely responsible one, where we have to provide clear but detailed information, whilst making sure that this does not lead to scaremongering or to nations panicked into acting unwisely. Even more important is to make sure that sufficient information is provided to prevent the myriad of myths, which relish an information vacuum.
Unfortunately, the media love nothing more than sensationalism. Social media in particular has an unquenchable thirst for headline grabbing stories, which often have a complete disregard for truth and fact.
It is difficult to believe that some of the myths have taken hold in popular culture. No, garlic will not prevent coronavirus. Neither will rinsing your nose with saline. Nor will cold weather and snow kill the virus. The World Health Organisation has an excellent myth busting section on its website.
In the UK a specialist government unit, involving numerous teams across Whitehall, has been set up to counter disinformation about coronavirus. The unit will work with social media companies and communications experts to counter the spread of false claims. The team has just published “Resist – A counter-disinformation toolkit” to help professionals build resilience to the threat of misinformation.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has welcomed the unit and has given a timely reminder that its members all sign up to the Code of Conduct, which requires them check the reliability and accuracy of any information they share.
The Institute’s specialist group, Local Public Services, has published an excellent coronavirus guide for communicators.
Coronavirus has certainly had an effect on the communications industry with the cancellation of some conferences, more meetings held by video conferencing and fewer people travelling in to their offices. The counter to this and the more positive effect, however, has been the flourishing of responsible and agile communications, based on professionalism and the best values of the communications industry.