In the wake of Australia’s #toiletpapergate following widespread #coronavirus #panicbuying, VIVA! Communications’ Agency Principal and owner, Kirsten Bruce, is discussing the role of responsible health communications in stemming public panic in the face of a pandemic:

Q: How well is this crisis is being handled from both a government and brand communications perspective?

A: The Australian Government has been regularly updating the public on COVID-19 (coronavirus) with near-daily public statements and media interviews across popular mainstream outlets. In fact, from a local browser, the Australian Government’s Health page ranks third on Google for Coronavirus, after WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Our Australian Prime Minister has issued a litany of media releases regarding the coronavirus, including announcements on vaccine research funding  and travel bans, in order to keep the public abreast of the issue.

Q: How can we best contain panic at a time like this, while ensuring people understand the seriousness of the situation?

A: Alarmist headlines typically fuel public panic, often resulting in chaos, as seen with Australia’s ‘toiletpapergate’. When counselling our clients in crisis communications, we reinforce the importance of providing a regular drumbeat of factual articles to help keep the public well-informed e.g. “What is coronavirus and what to do if I have symptoms” vs “Fifth case of deadly coronavirus confirmed in Australia”

Furthermore, not all coverage of the coronavirus has been ‘hard-news’, with many outlets also reporting on softer and lighter stories and articles to fulfil their ‘corona quota’ of stories.

Q: What is the impact of misinformation around coronavirus and how can we combat it?

A: There have been multiple false and misleading claims about the origins of the novel coronavirus outbreak across social media. While Australian news media outlets have been debunking social media myths and disqualifying such claims, some of the misinformation has been used to fuel racist stereotypes. For instance, there was a fake media release warning people to stay away from Brisbane suburbs with large Chinese populations. Reputable news sources (along with WHO and Google internationally) are working to override this misinformation. As with any health issue, it’s important to always check your news sources and choose reputable organisations.

Q: What can be done to improve things now from a communications perspective and are there any lessons to be learnt?

A: A good crisis communications strategy should always follow the four Ts – timely, transparent, truthful and tested messaging. Regular reporting, information and fact-sharing from countries with confirmed corona virus cases – including China, Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, France, Germany, Italy and Iran – can help to stem public panic, and even help curb a pandemic. The global media has a responsibility to inform the public, by accurately reporting on the spread and symptoms, in a bid to help contain the coronavirus. 

Q: Finally, given VIVA!’s experience in infectious and communicable diseases, what are the experts advising from a public health perspective?

A: VIVA! has been privileged to work with national and international experts in the field over many years, who echo similar sentiments when it comes to controlling the spread of infection and panic:

  1. We won’t have any medical interventions such as vaccines, antivirals or antibodies available to stop the COVID-19 for the next 6-12 months;
  2. The immunocompromised, especially the elderly, are the most at-risk group, so prevention and containment measures should aim to protect this vulnerable population;
  3. However, the majority of Australians will likely be exposed to the virus, and even contract it mildly, with a small percentage experiencing more severe episodes;
  4. Our healthcare system and aged care facilities will face the biggest challenges, so as a community, we need to do what we can to minimise the burden of the virus;
  5. Good hand and sneeze/cough hygiene is the best defence against most viruses, including COVID-19. Washing your hands thoroughly for 20-30 seconds (sing happy birthday as a good gauge!) after visiting the bathroom and before eating, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and using alcohol-based hand sanitiser is important. If you do start to feel unwell, avoid contact with others, and call your GP for advice, rather than visiting a medical clinic or hospital.