The coronavirus has people talking, reading, tweeting, and viewing. (Image of ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), via CDC.)
A forthcoming article from the Medical Journal of Australia asserts that “It is too early to tell how this outbreak will unfold, but we need to be prepared at all levels of the healthcare system, with a key tenet of this response being rapid and reliable communication.”
A Guardian article about the outbreak states simply, “Communication is key.”
Communication as a core responsibility
One of the core communication responsibilities of public health professionals is disease prevention, including emergency communication. Medical professionals, too, have significant communication roles in a health threat or emergency.
Crucial communication happens between and among health professionals; between health professionals and state and federal agencies; between health professionals and patients or the public; and between a health system or university, and its surrounding community.
These are specialized communication scenarios in many ways. And they can come with their own unique pressures.
You know this. You’re busy gathering the latest information to share, and following the appropriate protocols.
If you’re communicating with patients or the public, here are gentle reminders about some communication fundamentals you won’t want to forget.
Put the audience first
In times when there’s a sense of urgency, I’ve noticed professionals fall into what you might call delivery mode.
That is, they have information and they get right down to delivering it.
However, an eagerness to communicate what we know can trip us up. That’s because we’re focused on what we need to say…rather than on what our audience needs to hear. Aristotle knew 2500 years ago that the audience was the single most important part of any communication.
Prioritizing people’s voiced concerns–what people are asking for–isn’t just being nice. There are several research-based reasons why this is important. I’m going to go into two of them: purpose and emotion. Both of them have impact on our reading, writing, listening, viewing, and understanding.
Purpose impacts process
I’ve written before about adult learning theory and how, as adults, we learn what want to learn. We pay attention to what we think will serve our needs and suit our purposes.
Our purpose–sometimes called intent–is an important part of the context around communication. Whether we’re reading, writing, listen, talking, producing or viewing, this purpose or intent shapes how we interact with language and make sense of it. Though you might not have thought of it this way before, you already know that you read something differently depending on your purpose for reading it.
During a health threat, it’s reasonable to assume people are turning to you or your organization because they’d like to feel safe, reassured, informed, calmed, perhaps even empowered. So we might say their purpose is to know more so they can feel better or do better.
Emotional state has an impact
Now, the emotions. Let’s assume that people are turning to you or your organization because they are worried, concerned, afraid, curious, or something like that. Fear’s a heck of a motivator. This isn’t news to you.
What gets less attention is what fear and other emotions have to do with reading, listening, viewing, and understanding.
Again, the context around any interaction with language—including our emotions—shapes how we receive and make sense of what we read, hear, and view.
I’ve written about this before. Rosenblatt’s Transactional theory states:
In the linguistic event, any process will be affected also by the physical and emotional state of the individual, e.g., by fatigue or stress. Attention may be controlled or wandering, intense or superficial. [p.6]
You know what this feels like if you’ve ever tried to read when you’re tired. You might read and reread the same paragraph multiple times because you’ve not caught a single word you read. Even though you’re perfectly capable of reading and understanding every word and every sentence, you are not making sense of it at the time because you’re tired.
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In communication around a health threat, this has many implications. As we encounter and interpret information related to our health, our physical and emotional state affects how we interact with what we’re hearing or reading.
An extreme example
Rosenblatt gives us an example that may be helpful to consider for both purpose, and emotion:
An extreme example is the man who has accidentally swallowed a poisonous liquid and who is rapidly reading the label on the bottle to learn the antidote. [p. 7]
He is reading for a particular purpose, to get the antidote. That’s WHY he’s reading.
This WHY impacts HOW he reads. As he reads, he is scanning and looking for specific information, rather than reading every word.
His emotions also impact HOW he reads. As Rosenblatt suggests, his attention might be controlled and intense because of his urgent need. Then again, he may panic and this might interfere with his concentration. He might not be able to make sense of the label in this context, even though he’s capable of reading and understanding every word.
This persons’ purpose, and his physical and emotional state shapes how he reads and understands the text on the bottle. And that’s true for all of us, all the time we interact with words or images.
How about social media?
A recent article on CBC/Radio Canada underlines some of the points I’m making here.
Alfred Hermida, professor at the University of British Columbia, drew attention to why there is so much social media activity around the coronavirus, saying, “The reason people are sharing this is because they’re trying to make sense of what is a really complicated situation and also something that is potentially worrying.” Here the suggested reader intent or purpose is making sense of a complicated situation, and the emotion is worry.
In the same article, York University professor Fuyuki Kurasawa says social media can amplify the fear that people have during an outbreak and decrease their ability to filter inaccurate information–drawing our attention to both emotion (fear) and purpose (finding accurate information). Both of these shape HOW people read, and how they understand what they read.
Of course, misinformation is a concern—during a health threat, and every day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, emotion may have a hand in people’s choice to spread misinformation on social media.
From that same article, Ramona Pringle, from Ryerson University in Toronto, implies that the strong emotion associated with some posts may be one of the reasons people share it and cause it to go viral. She points out that accurate information doesn’t get the same traction online, saying “It doesn’t have the stuff that makes people want to share it. It doesn’t have that shock and strong emotion.”
Indeed, on twitter earlier this week, I had to do some serious digging–thru pages of tweets on ‘coronavirus’–before I got to the CDC’s tweets. (Side note: I was not using the hashtag they’re using here, #2019nCoV, which–though very accurate–strikes me as a little clunky, and certainly not as intuitive as #coronavirus, which doesn’t get used in this specific tweet.)
— CDC (@CDCgov) January 27, 2020
What you can do
How do you keep purpose and emotion in mind when you’re communicating in a health threat? Fortunately, your audience is going to tell you.
- Prioritize people’s questions, whatever they are.
- You may want to make up a FAQ sheet (check out the CDC’s FAQ page here). Bonus points for using the words and phrases your audiences use.
- It may be helpful to put the questions most often asked near the top of this list—whether or not you think they’re the most important questions to ask.
- While you’re promoting reliable sources, you might offer tips on how to tell good information from not-so-good information.
And remember: sensational stuff can get the shares on social media because it’s sensational; there’s a strong sensation of emotion. It doesn’t mean people aren’t reading or following the good advice.