COVID-19: The CIDRAP Viewpoint. Part 2: Effective COVID-19 Crisis Communication

Publication Date

May 20, 2020

Page Number


Link to Report




“Messages from government leaders and even public health officials have been all over the map, leaving in their wake much confusion and anxiety.”  Fairly well-established principles too often ignored include “Don’t over-reassure,” “Proclaim uncertainty,” and “Admit mistakes.”  They make for good leadership during infectious disease outbreaks and help us all cope.
Over-reassuring messages that sugarcoat bad news are probably the most common mistake. Sugarcoating typically backfires, and makes frightened people feel abandoned with their fear.  Leaders in Scotland, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand, and New York State are cited for refusing to over-reassure their publics.  The public covets certainty, and merely acknowledging uncertainty is not enough: leaders must be willing to speculate and acknowledge opinion diversity.  Science is still in its infancy in regard to COVID-19: “there is no such thing as ‘The Science’”.   And don’t tell people not to be afraid: pandemic fear is appropriate and useful to maintain social distancing.  As societies try to exit from lockdown, the dominant dynamic should be between two healthy fears:  “a second large wave of disease vs. fear of economic devastation.”  Other tips: give people things to do (preferably a menu of actions), admit and apologize for errors, and share dilemmas (obviously, how best to compromise health vs. economic considerations). 

Note: Also see Part 1: The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic (April 30, 8p) and subsequent weekly reports on testing, contact tracing, surveillance, supply chains, and other topics.]