Coronavirus: advice for emergency comms

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🍌 on Unsplash
Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

I remember well the SARS outbreak back in 2003.  I was heading up Barclays PR department and was asked to send a senior member of my team to an emergency meeting on the bank’s response.  She returned after little more than an hour. I asked her if the meeting had finished and she replied it was still going on but she didn’t really think she was the best person for that part of the discussion as the main topic had been how many body bags the bank should be ordering.  Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. So, what should be the role of communications now that we are faced with another possible pandemic in the form of COVID-19?

Any communications objectives should be aligned with the organisation’s given strategic objectives so  we should start with the UK government’s recently published Coronavirus Action Plan.  The Planning Principles – as they are called in that document – where communications can help the most are given below:

  • Minimise the potential health impact by slowing spread in the UK and overseas, and reducing infection, illness and death 
  • Minimise the potential impact on society and the UK and global economy, including key public services 
  • Maintain trust and confidence amongst the organisations and people who provide key public services, and those who use them

One of the tried and tested communications models available to us in such eventualities is CERC – Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. CERC was developed in the US in the wake of 9/11 followed up swiftly by the intentional anthrax contamination of letters in the US postal system. It was developed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

As with many crisis communications models CERC breaks the crisis down into discrete phases.  These are: precrisis, initial event, maintenance, resolution and evaluation. It is not straightforward to map these onto the UK Government’s declared phases of Contain, Delay, Research and Mitigate but we can certainly draw some commonalities in terms of communications strategy.


CERC puts much emphasis on the establishment by the authorities of trusted sources of information.

As we know from the recent Edelman Trust Barometer, Governments in many parts of the world are not particularly trusted and have not been for many years – especially, since the last financial crisis in 2008. 

In the UK we are fortunate to have Professor Chris Whitty as Chief Medical Officer at this moment. As well as being a leading physician Professor Whitty is himself an epidemiologist so comes with double the credibility.  He is also an excellent communicator with a very calm delivery and a refreshingly jargon-free approach.


First, fast and frequent

In a crisis we often believe the first message we hear so it is crucial this the right one. But it does not end there as these messages have to change as the crisis unfolds. Not too much but enough to enable people to process how to respond to the changing situation. Any change in message needs to be very carefully thought through and consistent across all channels and spokespeople. It needs to be complete also and we can see this with the regular 2pm announcement from the Government now confirming the number of COVID-19 test undertaken, positive results and deaths.  

And simple

During a crisis we face information overload. Those affected can miss out important pieces of information if the messaging is too complex. We also know from classic communication theory that new messaging is harder to get across than familiar messaging. In this vein we have seen the Government reach for the Catch it; Bin it; Kill it messaging we have seen many times before applied to seasonal flu. As well as ticking that simple box it is also familiar so makes it through the filter that much easier.  


Linked to the above, it is crucial the authorities listen to what people are saying about the virus. Real life worries and concerns must be swiftly replied to. It was interesting to see this in action during last week’s BBC One Question Time when the appearance of the Health Minister,  Matt Hancock, on the show developed into quickfire questions to him on everything to stocks of toilet rolls to what do we do if a significant proportion of health staff themselves feel ill.  


Crisis communication models and indeed models of persuasion more generally talk about the need to give those affected a role to play in reducing risk and uncertainty. It helps us feel as if we have some control over the situation. The detailed instructions on hand washing we have been given – complete with diagrams and even songs to sing whilst doing it – give us ‘agency’. We have a role to play and therefore feel as if we have some control, helping us to adjust psychologically rather than going into free-fall panic.

Fake news

Something we have all been concerned about for some time runs the risk of really coming into its own during a crisis such as this. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced the creation of a cross-departmental unit to rebut fake news about the virus. 

DCMS said the unit would have “regular and robust engagement” with social media companies to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation, and it will work with communications experts to respond where necessary.

COVID-19 is a difficult challenge for Governments around the world. The objective is to be a bit Goldilocks: we want some concern, enough for us to change some of our at-risk behaviours, but not enough to tip us into panic. We are still in the early phase of this situation so it is a little difficult to award marks out of ten but it does appear there is a communications strategy in place.

Chris Tucker is course leader for the CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma through PR Academy

View CIPR Crisis Communication Diploma