Communicating with Citizens About Coronavirus without Creating Panic

Written by Jennifer Elliott

Keep your citizens informed, without making them fearful.
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As of March 7, 2020, 164 cases of coronavirus have been identified in the United States across 19 states, resulting in 11 deaths (see updated numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] here). Globally, there have been 109,757 cases, resulting in 3,802 deaths. The numbers are staggering, particularly when one considers that the first cases of novel coronavirus, then believed to be pneumonia, were identified in China only on December 31, 2019. While medical experts are still rushing to understand the virus, how it spreads, and most pressingly, to devise a cure or vaccine, communities, businesses, and health care organizations are scrambling to put sanitization practices in place and recommend behavior protocols to mitigate contagion.

As with all events that impact the globe, individuals want to know, “what is the impact where I live, and how may this affect me?” For answers, they will turn to their local leaders. At this time, fear, anxiety, and virus-related xenophobia may be just as dangerous to communities as the risk of contagion itself. Local public safety and communications leaders must strike a precarious balance between impressing on citizens the importance of taking precautionary measures, without creating mass panic and paranoia that could lead to the kinds of doomsday planning that can isolate a community. When communicating with citizens about coronavirus, follow the best practices below to achieve your goals of education and awareness, without eliciting fear or panic.

Stick to the Facts

Be specific about the number of cases of coronavirus and where clusters of impacted patients are most severe. Refer to the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO) for up-to-date statistics. Avoid using hyperbolic statements such as “Masses of people” or inherently frightening phrases such as “global pandemic.” By ensuring your messages are fact-based and free of exaggerations or strong adjectives, you can mitigate feelings of fear.

Do Not Attempt to Make Predictions for the Future

Medical experts and scientists do not yet have a prediction as to when the spread of coronavirus may be containable. Citizens will be less likely to feel the fear of uncertainty if they are not exposed to predictive phrases that either promise a quick cure, or anticipate a long-term virus evolution with exponential casualties.

Reassure Local Containment Efforts

Your citizens want the reassurance of knowing that their local leaders are using the resources funded by taxpayer dollars to mitigate virus spread. When talking about the virus, reassure citizens that your municipality is monitoring updates from the CDC, following sanitization best practices in public spaces, and enabling safety by encouraging citizens and staff to avoid crowds and travel.

Reinforce Personal Preventive Practices

In every communication, encourage citizens to follow best practices for minimizing exposure to coronavirus. Such procedures include frequent hand washing or antibacterial sanitization, regular cleaning of common surfaces, avoiding unnecessary travel, and keeping a safe distance from anyone who presents with symptoms of respiratory illness. These practices are not only critical health reminders, but they reinforce to citizens that staying healthy and safe from contagion is within their control. Such feelings of self-management are vital, as when people feel that an epidemic is out of their control, they are more likely to resort to panicking beliefs and behaviors.

Demonstrate Opportunities for Safe Non-Isolationism

The risk of contracting a novel virus may encourage some citizens to be fearful of being in crowds, participating in events, going to work, or even leaving their homes. While citizens should avoid non-essential travel and keep a safe distance from anyone who may be at risk of having contracted the illness, your local government cannot operate if citizens hide indoors. Show your citizens that they can still participate in public dialog and events without risking exposure to the virus—especially if they are already immunocompromised. Encourage citizens to watch live streams of public meetings and leverage citizen engagement survey tools to ensure your administrators do not broaden gaps in dialog due to civic non-participation resulting from fears of virus spread.

Follow Guidance from Health Officials

Continually review guidance from the CDC and encourage citizens to do the same. Municipalities should follow procedural recommendations from health experts, and citizens will be comforted in knowing that their community is aligned with national procedures.

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