Rajeev Shukla
Guest Article

Whatever happened to a public health communication strategy?

In the absence of any official messaging, the public has come to depend on ‘Whatsapp University’ and other unreliable sources of information.

Have you been overwhelmed and confused by scores of ‘experts’ holding forth on the Covid wave raging through India? Talking heads on TV, online and print opinion pieces, research findings, ‘WhatsApp University’.

Let us condense the currently available wisdom on strategies to manage the Covid crisis:

  • Logistics management to connect oxygen availability to demand

  • Fast-tracking vaccine supplies

  • Ramping up testing

  • Decentralised, 24x7 war rooms that counsel patients and use real time data to connect them with ambulances, beds etc.

  • Mass surveillance and genome sequencing, to track emerging strains

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO A PUBLIC HEALTH COMMUNICATION STRATEGY?

Isn't it a critical factor in guiding citizens in a time of crisis, and getting them to observe Covid-appropriate behaviour? (Here, I am not talking of communication of policies, or updates on statistics, or messages by leaders)

Rajeev Shukla
Rajeev Shukla

Instead, we have various government departments, states, hospitals, companies, RWAs, NGOs, media platforms, all giving their own take on different aspects of the disease.

There are new questions that pop up every day. How to practise proning correctly? Does a particular homeopathic medicine increase blood oxygen level? Even when some people stay confined to their homes, why are they contracting the virus (could it be due to aerosol infection via the toilet)?

The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare website is hopelessly dated and misleading. In fact, its FAQs actually advise against mask usage by general public (“A mask should only be used by health workers, caretakers, and individuals with respiratory symptoms, such as fever and cough”), forget any advice on how to double mask.

There is no one destination to go to, for complete and correct information, given simply. People are anxious and confused. In an information vacuum, fake news flourishes, and consequently, so does fact-checking. Resulting in huge waste of precious time and energy.

WHAT IF the government got top health and policy experts to put their heads together, anticipate every question and scenario, and with one day's deliberations, agree on people-centric FAQs that are:

Clear: Simple, concise and reassuring

Comprehensive: Covering all aspects of the disease lifecycle

Credible: Mentioning the impeccable source, speaking with authority

Context-led: Factoring in the Indian context – related to the strains, infrastructure realities, cultural sensitivities

Current: Capturing the latest protocols, and updating them regularly

(5C should resonate with the acronym-loving government!)

If the government ensured that every aspect is covered – infection prevention, testing, disease management, finding critical resources, recovery, vaccination, volunteering. Translated these FAQs into all Indian languages, use Indian visuals and simple infographics. Disseminated them everywhere, and updated them every week.

Identified key messages from these FAQs and got the best communication experts to create messaging that is simple, engaging, powerful, using celebrities with credibility.

Asked popular media platforms to rise to the occasion and commit prime time and prime space.

When it comes to product launches, agile campaign creation and deployment is something communication agencies take pride in, all the time. Of course, it can be done.

This Tuesday, 300+ government mandarins gathered in a virtual meeting chaired by the I&B minister, to evolve a communication strategy to ensure the government is seen as “sensitive, bold, responsive and hardworking.” Daily meetings are on, with urgent focus on managing the media narrative.

Instead, why not kick off FAQs-based communication? So that people don’t have to run around to the websites of WHO, CDC, ICMR, MoHFW, and more. And they don’t have to post questions on random WhatsApp groups, to be met with confusing and questionable ‘advice’. Going back to the basics is what we need, and it is missing in action.

With 5Cs as the guiding principles, people will get what is at a premium today – information they can trust. So that they can stay safe, know what to do when and how, feel reassured, and act responsibly.

Award-winning campaigns and narrative management can wait. Pandemic ravaged people cannot.

The author is co-founder & managing partner of Resonance Consulting, a branding and communication firm. This article was first published on LinkedIn. Republished with permission.