Covid-19: How to communicate in times of crisis?

No one expected to go through a situation like the one Covid-19 currently represents. We are, ultimately, in a crisis that currently marks the agenda of all governments.

Doctors, pharmacists, biologists, police, etc., work every day in order to be able to control the situation. But we must not forget those people who work in public entities and are responsible for keeping citizens informed about what is happening and what measures must be taken.

Today more than ever we must be aware of the importance of communicating a message. In times like these, communication is key to successfully facing a crisis. What is happening? How originated? What is the government doing to fix it? When will it end? Is there a guarantee that it will not happen again?

In general, what will life be like from now on? People need answers. We are prepared?

Communicate in times of crisis

"Always be prepared." It can be said that this is a maxim in institutional communication. And it is that while there are risks that can be foreseen and others that are not, all communication equipment must be prepared to be able to react as quickly as required.

It is in times of crisis where it is precisely possible to better assess how the communication of government entities at all levels (National, Regional and Local) is working and if they have a strategy to deal with contexts like this.

Although it is important that entities have an updated web page, with relevant information, contact details, suggestions on how to prevent a risk, among others; Today the most effective way to reach citizens and be able to transmit a message is the use of social networks.

Of course, taking care of a social network is not an easy task. Beyond the rules that must protect interaction with the public and the entity's dependents, it is important to have a team that is prepared to properly manage the network.

Relationship with the public

What are the bases of the relationship between communicator and user? Among the most important we can mention the following: (i) building trust with the public, (ii) communicative coherence (even in relation to the frequency with which the information is published), (iii) predisposition to dialogue (which implies generating interaction responding to problems and requests from users) and, of course, (iv) transparency of information.

The existence of a solid relationship between users and the entity allows achieving an important objective: the construction of a community. Once this is achieved, managing a crisis is much easier, since people trust the system and can easily abide by the measures that are available, which is not so easy to achieve otherwise. In other words, if it is possible to involve the citizen in the entity's action plan, citizens are raised awareness of all the measures that are required to control the emergency situation that is going through. Thus, it is key that the citizen becomes an "ally" of the entity: A joint effort leads to a much faster solution.

How to prepare for a crisis?

As already mentioned, from the entity's internal point of view, it is essential to have a team that is in charge of communicating the most important information and managing interaction with the public on social networks. I want to highlight the word “team” because it would be practically impossible for a single person to take on this responsibility (which, in many cases and unfortunately, is not yet fully recognized).

Clearly, the role that each of these people will assume must be identified. There are those who run the networks, those who prepare the press releases, who are prepared to provide an interview in the media, etc. Logically, if two people provide diverse information, the public would not know who to trust and the credibility of the entity is affected.

As an example, a few days ago the Italian interior minister communicated in a circular letter that children and the elderly could "take a walk near the house and keeping the minimum distance of one meter." Obviously, the criticism was not lacking. Governors and mayors claimed not to be able to let their guard down now, since the risk of reversing the benefits of this long quarantine - in one of the most affected countries - was quite probable. Immediately, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had to clarify that the restrictive measures are maintained.

This only confirms that, although communication with citizens is essential, the internal relationship should not be neglected. The message that is sought to be transmitted must be prepared in advance, be consistent with the policy that the government is implementing, published in a timely manner and format, and, above all, must not lead to misinterpretations.

How is Peru acting? Brief reference to Minsa

As is already known, in Peru, it is the president, Martín Vizcarra, who has been in charge of assuming leadership in communicating the main measures adopted by the government to confront the pandemic.

Without delving much into how strategic it is turning out that the spokesperson is held by the president or the Minsa, and leaving aside also the impact of the recent change of the head of this Ministry, it is important to pay attention to the institutional communication that the Minsa is carrying out, it is still a fundamental source of reference for citizens (and that is the role that must be reinforced).

For illustrative purposes only, we will analyze the most recent information provided by the Ministry in reference to the health crisis currently facing. It should be noted that the information in the images contains the updated data as of the writing of this article (1/4/2020).

Through the website, it is possible to access updated information on confirmed Covid-19 cases and number of deaths by sex and age. This information is essential for any citizen:

As for the entity's facebook profile, it presents relevant information, with a frequency of 3 to 5 posts per day, many with more than 1000 “likes”, with the posts that generate the most interaction being those with video content. that appeal to emotions.

* One of the videos that was recently published refers to doctors as heroes, with the use of the hashtag # HéroesDeLaSalud. The post exceeded 4 thousand likes, and it is observed, in the majority of comments, messages of thanks, solidarity and empathy.

Here you can see how the entity was able to involve citizens to participate in the virus containment strategy, with the message "stay home while other Peruvians work for health," a strategy that, so far, seems function efficiently.

Another type of publication that generates positive reactions are messages of clarification in the face of false information (fake news), one more enemy to face in times like these. In view of the fact that the information that is released will circulate very quickly, the communication team must be alert to fake news, which is mainly fought by publishing true information. In this way it is possible to control an unfounded panic.

* The post that clarifies that President Martín Vizcarra did not test positive for the virus is important to assess the entity's rapid reaction to the spread of fake news.

For its part, the entity's Instagram shows that it works dynamically, with the publication of constant posts and stories. The comments demonstrate citizen satisfaction and trust in the entity, however, there is no reaction from the entity to all the comments. This is strategic. It is not necessary to respond or react to each one; however, it is important that the entity knows how to offer a response when there are requests that warrant it.

Conclusion

Crises are always latent, so institutions must be prepared at all times. A government cannot face a crisis situation without an action plan that allows it to intervene quickly and efficiently.

In this sense, institutional communication plays a key role in involving citizens in measures to contain the emergency situation. Building a caring and responsible community is the task of that team that is responsible for providing information through the entity's different platforms.

The use of social networks allows massive access to a diversity of information and, at the time of crisis management, it is essential to make use of them. Transmitting tranquility and acquiring the trust of citizens facilitates achieving the desired objectives. Thus, an appropriately managed crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate the degree of development and organization of a government.

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Yamile Cárdenas
Yamile is a lawyer from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP). He is currently studying a Master's in Media and Politics at the University of Bologna, Italy. He has worked at SEMANAeconómica, EY Peru, ProInversion, PetroPeru, among others. Contact: yamile.cardenas@studio.unibo.it

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