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Trafalgar: Communicating the Coronavirus Epidemic

Coronavirus is spreading across the globe and Britons are beginning to worry about the effects of the outbreak reaching their community. Panic hasn’t set in but a few more cases in a busy city like London could be all it takes to put people in the United Kingdom on edge.

Having been in the eye of a public health hurricane during the 2009 H1N1 flu scare as a senior communications adviser to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I offer the following advice to those currently handling the communications around coronavirus:

Communicate early and often

Like nature, concerned citizens abhor a vacuum. Officials should be out early and often informing Britons about the virus’ symptoms, its spread, and the potential implications for their communities (e.g. school closures). The need for constant communication through official channels is especially important in the age of social media, where fiction regularly outruns fact. The government should be working with companies like Google and Facebook to ensure their information is boosted to the top of any searches of ‘coronavirus’. A good old-fashioned direct mail piece with the facts would also go a long way to informing the population.

And those communications need to begin now, ahead of any mass spread of the virus on British shores. Now is precisely the time to remind people of good hygienic practice: regular hand washing; coughing into tissues and the crook of your elbow (not your hands); avoiding crowded environments (if possible); and self-quarantining if and when any symptoms appear. It is also the time to make sure everyone knows who to contact and when to contact them should they fall ill.

Front your communications with the experts

Politicians usually trip over themselves to get in front of the cameras on a hot issue but a public health emergency is the time to let your officials come to the fore. The people might have had it with the experts during Brexit, but the experts should always be front and centre in a public health emergency.

During the H1N1 outbreak in Canada we let the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada and the country’s chief medical officer lead the daily updates, bringing in the Health Minister or other government ministers only when the circumstances warranted it.

Drop the politics

Bringing officials to the fore brings another benefit: it takes (some of) the politics out of the government’s response. In times of crisis the public want to see adults in charge, not the usual outbreaks of partisan hackery. And while Her Majesty’s Official Opposition must hold the government to account during its response, it should do so with the right tone, and in a constructive manner, lest it be accused of playing politics during a time of crisis.

Keep your friends close and your (political) enemies closer

One way to invite constructive criticism is to regularly brief key members of the Shadow Cabinet and opposition. If the opposition are given a forum to air their criticisms and suggestions in private they might be less inclined – having already received answers – to make those same criticisms in front of cameras. If you burden the opposition with the responsibilities of office they’ll have less time to practice the politics of opposition.

Be transparent

And even if the government are caught with their proverbial pants down during the response to coronavirus they should be honest and upfront with Britons about those shortcomings and pledge to do better, not try to spin some lipstick onto the pig.

The news from coronavirus will not always be good and there is no shame in admitting that fact. People understand that outbreaks are difficult to predict and contain, and so they don’t expect perfection. They do, however, expect honesty and action, so delivering those two will help to mitigate the impact of any failures.


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