Opinion: communicating about coronavirus required immediate, succinct, clear and accessible communication, open to as little interpretation as possible

Dr Tony Holohan has the best-known face on Irish TV at the moment. The public scrutiny of his every movement was evident when the Department of Health's Chief Medical Officer briefly indicated that he was feeling unwell during a press conference on Covid-19. This created a news story in itself and even trended on social media. We are hanging on his every word. 

Communicating about coronavirus and the risks of contracting and spreading Covid-19 requires immediate, succinct, clear and accessible communication, open to as little interpretation as possible. There are vast swathes of infographics, epidemiology statistics and "heat" maps available to web users right now and there is a public yearning for immediate news and information on the virus like no other scientific topic.

There are three ways of communicating social policy issues where large amounts of scientific or risk information are involved. The first is dissemination, and press conferences and infographics are part of this. Holohan and colleagues are heavily engaged in this right now, as are many other strategic communicators across the world. This is often needed for clearly informing a large number of people and sometimes, as it is at the moment, on a topic that needs urgent attention. Dr Holohan has usually lead the press briefings, which have featured updates on the Irish situation, with infection rates, deaths and policy responses.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Nine News, report on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's St Patrick's Day national broadcast on Covid-19 crisis

This crisis is as political and social as it is scientific, so leaders have needed to communicate regularly. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's St Patrick’s Day live address to the country was well-received and, although perhaps over-reliant on other speeches, it set the perfect tone and was the right sentiment for the times. There was none of the fudging and overly-optimistic projections that has blighted other world leaders' responses.  

It is through these messages, as well as the advert campaigns, the billboards and the yellow hazard colour-coding signs with simple instructions, that we learned about the correct washing of hands, the social distancing measures and what to do if we need to self-isolate. There are signs that the relationship between the health experts and journalists will be tested during these times of tension and high expectation, with ground rules for expectation changing. Nonetheless, these daily updates have been necessary to report on new cases, deaths, hospitals, Covid-19 clusters in nursing homes and to keep reminding the public how to significantly reduce community transmission.

Researchers across the world who look at how science has been communicated historically have noted a drive towards a second model, which is referred to as dialogue. There has been criticism of the traditional dissemination idea as being a "deficit model", assumed public ignorance by scientists and policy decision-makers leading to arrogance. Public debates about nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms and artificial intelligence have urged greater dialogue between scientists and the public at an earlier stage of research, and there are plenty of activities that allow discussions, reflections and debate.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health Dr. Tony Holohan on measures and restrictions to combat the spread of Covid-19

The third model can be called participation. While advocates for this form recognise the need for greater dialogue between experts and non-experts, the idea of participation goes further as it expects public involvement, such as citizen science , public-patient involvement in healthcare and makerspaces.

For the dissemination model, Dr Holohan needs to walk the tightrope of the strategic position of implementing a policy for public health as a whole, as well as addressing individual concerns about lack of personal protective equipment, delays in testing and obtaining results. It could not be imagined in another era that there would be Government directives telling adults to stay at home and wash their hands frequently.

And there is compliance. The public have been told by authorities to flatten the curve and through the extraordinary community efforts of Irish people, as shown in other countries, there is a collective altruistic response and an ownership of our actions. "Flatten the curve" is no longer a scientific term, but both a meme and a mantra.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Prime Time Explained, how scientists across the world are winning the fight against Covid-19

Whatever warranted criticism exists of the HSE and Government on other issues, it took the right words from the Taoiseach and Dr Holohan to quickly establish trust, to show we are all in this together. There is a correlation between the strength of that initial messaging from world leaders in the early days that this was a pandemic and the public response to flattening the curve.

What we see is that the first model of dissemination and the third model of participation are working together now. At this point, dialogue is for another day. However, a combination of dissemination, dialogue and participation must follow when we begin to re-construct our lives and societies again, but maybe seeing the science-society relationship differently this time.

In the past, swine flu and foot-and-mouth disease required clear communication and public response and compliance was needed for the latter. But this is different and something else happened within the coronavirus strategic communication. In addition to the Taoiseach’s speech, the Minister for Health gave a public plea from for people to stay at home. There were human touches: public addresses mention that the work ofthe tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were deemed essential and could continue.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News' Pandemic podcast, Colm Ó Mongáin talks to RTÉ Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers about two press conferences - one by the HSE and one with the Minister for Health - in which the testing, restrictions and the mathematical modelling of the disease were discussed

A recent article criticised the use of war metaphors while describing coronavirus. We are witnessing collectivisation, partnerships and togetherness and we are doing all of this, paradoxically, in small groups, remotely. These are not the words of war, and they certainly aren’t associated with authoritarian control. This virus, the scientific response, the social impact and the social response have been shown to be inseparably bound together.

Using communication models and activities, we know how to work better in a rapidly-changing situation. We know how connected the planet is and that humans can act in unison when needed. With continued public trust and meaningful engagement, we can then perhaps urgently address climate change, homelessness, inequality and so much else.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ