Econnect Communication > Newsletter > April 2020 – Communicating during a crisis
 

April 2020 – Communicating during a crisis

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Having passed the one-month mark of nationwide lockdowns, we’re all now familiar with the new pressures of communicating during a crisis.

When communicating science and uncertainties about scientific endeavours during times of risk and crisis, there are extra factors we need to take into account. We still need to apply general risk-communication tools, too.

Taking a bit of extra time to think through what we communicate can help us to avoid the rumour mills, gossip and conspiracy theories that flourish in these times.

In this month’s newsletter, we look at communicating science when the whole community is grappling to understand an outbreak of disease. And we have a couple of small gifts of creativity to share.

This month’s newsletter reflects on communicating during a crisis:

We hope you enjoy this newsletter and welcome your feedback.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle Riedlinger & Madeleine Stirrat.

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Communicating risk in times of crisis

By Jennifer Metcalfe

I have been reminded time and again over the past six weeks, as I am sure everyone else on the planet has been, that we live in risky times. It is fascinating to consume the media and discuss with international colleagues how different countries, scientists and politicians are communicating risk and acknowledging scientific uncertainties during this global crisis.

My colleague in South Africa, Dr Marina Joubert, asked me to collaborate on an article for The Conversation Africa on effective science communication for our times. The result was ‘Three key drivers of good messaging in a time of crisis: expertise, empathy and timing’.

In researching this article, I was reminded of the risk-communication knowledge I gained when on a CSIRO overseas study award to the US in 1993 (yes, 27 years ago!). It still informs my science communication practice:

  1. Listen. It is as important to listen to people as it is to inform them.
  2. Find out what people want to know. What you think is important and what others think is important may differ greatly. While it is important to communicate information you consider critical, you need to consider the concerns of affected or interested groups.
  3. Acknowledge uncertainties. This will help your long-term credibility as well as help educate people about the nature of scientific research.
  4. Put information into perspective. It is important not to raise expectations beyond what can be delivered, or to minimise risks. People require enough information to enable them to make their own decisions.
  5. Release information early. Delays in releasing critical information can lead to:
  • uninformed decision-making by groups and individuals affected
  • claims of ‘cover-up’ and subsequent loss of credibility
  • the build-up of prejudiced attitudes or emotions
  • reactive communication strategies.
  1. Take care when simplifying information. A fine balance needs to be maintained between providing too much information of a complex nature, and providing too little.
  2. Interact. Avoiding interaction with interested and/or affected people is a recipe for trouble. They need to be involved early and consulted regularly.

Taking account of human reactions: stress, depression and invention

By Toss Gascoigne

The science of communicating COVID-19 has to take in the human reaction. Management depends on a human response: will people self-isolate, will they follow the rules about meeting and mixing? What are they thinking, and how are they reacting?

We see the strains of social distancing: a predicted rise in domestic violence, studies showing Australians are drinking more and starting earlier in the day. And only those with school-age children can understand the stresses behind supervising lessons at home.

Memphis photographer Jamie Harmon has reacted in a different way. He took to the streets and asked his neighbours to stand for portraits of life under lockdown, as his interpretation of life during the crisis.

It’s a stunning series of portraits of people behind glass, and in the faces of the people we understand more of the impact of social distancing:
And what an interesting area he lives in! Printmaker Maritza, her actor husband Jon, base-playing Catrina and Patrick, film-making couple Chris and Laura, a congressman, and Memphis Zine Fest organiser Erica.

There’s also been a flowering of invention in other ways. Restores your faith in humans, really …


Jamie Harmon’s photo of actor Phil Darius Wallace and his family.

Communication in a crisis needs careful thought
By Claire Heath

This morning I received another unsolicited email on “7 self-care tips to stay mentally healthy”. Not from someone who knows what they’re talking about, but (this time) from my bank.

My inbox has been awash recently with emails from companies I have a business relationship with and from friends giving gratuitous advice and “information” about staying healthy during this time of the c-word. It doesn’t help; it just annoys.

My mood was restored when I came across a blog post on communicating clearly at a difficult time, written by Sarah Richards at Content Design London. She gives some tips that specifically address the current situation.

Her first piece of advice is: if you can’t add concrete value for your audience, don’t publish.

Authoritative sources are more likely to have accurate and up-to-date information, and we should leave them to provide it.

Those of us who supply content for websites or social media for work or for fun “do not need website traffic more than people need information about their own health”.

“Don’t clutter up search results,” she says.

“You’ll note that I am not using the cor-word, the pan-word, or the abbreviation with 19 in it. This is because I want to keep this post out of search results. I don’t want people looking for health advice to end up here.”

Ms Richards led the redesign of content for the UK’s Government Digital Service and web portal.

The rest of her advice applies to all communication:

  • choose the right channel
  • use structure to be clear, and prioritise information into sections so people can take it in quickly
  • use clear language in short, active sentences, and use words your users or audiences use
  • make it accessible, including by screen readers
  • make headings tell a story – use statements, which help readers and also work for search engine optimisation and voice-activated devices.

I wonder if I should send Sarah’s post to everyone who sends me unsolicited advice?

Perhaps I’ll let it go and instead listen to music while I work. Scientists have translated the protein spike on the virus of the moment into music. It’s ethereal, and makes good background music. The scientists didn’t do this for purely creative reasons. They believe it can help them find sites where antibodies or drugs might bind to the virus to help us fight it off.


This transmission electron microscope image shows particles of the virus SARS-CoV-2 emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The protein spikes are clearly visible. Image: NIAID-RML (CC BY 2.0).

Comfort in conspiracy
By Madeleine Stirrat

Some people are having difficulty putting faith in the experts right now; this shouldn’t be overly surprising. US Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar appointed a former labradoodle breeder as the head of the coronavirus task force in January.

In handling a virus that we still know very little about – the original source, why some people respond with more serious symptoms, whether we can develop immunity – people will fill in the gaps. Just as we see political agenda-pushing surrounding coronavirus daily, we also see fringe groups capitalising on the uncertainty.

In Australia, the conspiracy theorists of the wellness blogger community are using coronavirus to explain the harms of the recent 5G roll-out on the human immune system. In the UK, 5G towers were burnt down by subscribers to the anti-5G agenda.

Interviewed by the ABC, Dr Colin Klein from the Australian National University’s School of Philosophy suggested that “conspiracy theories offer an emotionally satisfying narrative, even if it’s not a true narrative”.

A team from the University of Kent’s School of Psychology says that there are three main drivers for the adoption of conspiracy theories:

  • epistemic – to better understand one’s environment
  • existential – to feel more safe and in control of one’s environment
  • social – to maintain a positive image of self and the social group.

Without a doubt, people facing the COVID-19 crisis are feeling all three of these comforts crumbling.

I have seen Facebook posts suggesting that the coronavirus is a government tool for population management. It’s a bizarre feature of the mind that deciding that events are outside of our control makes us feel more in control. Or perhaps that there are other covert or misleading forces at work.

The University of Kent research suggested that conspiracy beliefs were stronger when events were larger and more profound, leaving people less satisfied with mundane explanations. Belief in conspiracy theories was also stronger when people were personally affected or distressed by the event. When people believe conspiracy theories, it can help them preserve their coveted beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.

So, when communicating about coronavirus, or any science, understanding what needs people want satisfied is key. Consider these three questions when shaping your messages:

  • Does it increase their understanding of the situation?
  • Does it help them to feel in control?
  • Does it boost their confidence in themselves and their community?

Avoid tired and frustrated Zoom participants with these tips
By Michelle Riedlinger

This great article on Zoom fatigue and how to manage it offers some important tips for meeting hosts including:

  • limiting video calls to the bare minimum
  • making video optional for participants
  • before starting the meeting, checking in with participants to see how they are doing
  • encouraging participants to stretch, rehydrate, or do a bit of exercise between meetings.

But by far the biggest video conferencing stressor for participants is wrangling with the technology. Hosts can help reduce participant frustration by taking the following steps.

  1. Make sure everyone can see you. If you are sitting in front of a window, people may see only your silhouette. Ask these people to move or turn their camera off.
  2. Ask everyone to put themselves on mute until they wish to speak. If the host or someone else is giving a presentation, then put everyone else on mute.
  3. Ask participants to amplify their body language to give clear signals to others who are speaking. Participants might nod or shake their head or give a thumbs up. Remind them to smile more. This tells speakers that participants are following along.
  4. Ask participants to put their hand up if they would like to speak. They can do this physically in the video or via the non-verbal feedback function under the Participants tab.
  5. Get quick feedback from the group using the non-verbal feedback functions. Participants can indicate yes/no and go faster/slower. As the host, you may need to go into Zoom’s account settings and enable non-verbal feedback.
  6. Introduce the chat function so people with poor-quality audio can still participate. Use it to get quick feedback from the group but don’t let participants run side conversations in the chat window.
  7. Give participants another way to reach you during the meeting in case they drop out suddenly.

Some Zoom keyboard shortcuts to cut down technology stress include:

  • ⌘ (Cmd) + Shift + A (Mac) or Alt + A (PC) allows participants to mute/unmute their audio. Meeting hosts can use ⌘ (Cmd) + Ctrl + M (Mac) or Alt + M (PC) to mute everyone on a call at once.
  • ⌘ (Cmd) + Shift + V (Mac) or Alt + V (PC) to turn video on and off.
  • Quickly turn on screen share with ⌘ (Cmd) + Shift + S (Mac) or Alt + Shift + S (PC), then choose the screen to display. To stop the screen share, type these commands again.

You might also want to check out some alternatives to Zoom, such as Jitsi Meet or Blue Jeans. Microsoft Teams is also popular with work and school groups.


Avoid Zoom fatigue by following some simple tips that help you and other participants. Photo by Charles Deluvio (visuals) on Unsplash.

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