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Communication guidelines for epidemics/pandemics

Navigating Communication Challenges During an Epidemic/Pandemic

In their 2005 document, Outbreak Communication Guidelines, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that they believe it is crucial, “to acknowledge that communication expertise has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis.” Due to rapid globalization through the introduction of powerful communication tools that allow news to spread globally in the matter of seconds, communication has emerged in recent years as one of the most difficult aspects of an epidemic/pandemic to manage for public health officials. Let’s take a look at some of their guidelines from this document and how your organization can implement them to bolster your pandemic preparedness planning:


The cornerstone of all emergency communications, research shows that a public distrust of public health officials makes the public less likely to follow outbreak management instructions. It is equally important that trust exists internally between policy-makers, communicators, and technical staff – known as the “trust triangle” – before an outbreak occurs to ensure seamless coordination during an emergency.

Announce Early

In a dearth of information, the public will tend to assume the worst. Along with this, the longer information is withheld, the greater public anxiety will worsen. It is always best that troubling information be released by the proper authority as promptly as possible to provide legitimacy and reduce public panic. This applies to any initial information as well as any updates that are verified as an incident progresses.


Trust and transparency go hand-in-hand, however one does not necessitate the other. Transparency will only lead to greater public trust if the decisions they observe appear warranted and competent within the context they are provided. Additionally, a fine balance is required to simultaneously respect patient rights while providing adequate, relevant information to the public. Limits of transparency should be communicated, however using limitations as a crutch to withhold disconcerting information is discouraged.

The Public

Communication with the public should extend beyond simply stating decisions and actions. Rather, communication should take the form of something closer to a dialogue. Any messaging should include specific actions or information the public can use to make themselves less vulnerable during an outbreak. This will provide a sense of power and control over personal health and safety, leading to greater adoption of outbreak management instructions.


Any communication plan for any critical event should be carefully crafted by all relevant responders and stakeholders before an incident occurs. Taking the time to properly construct an outbreak communication plan will lead to greater confidence among the trust triangle in the event of an outbreak, as well as enable public communications to be broadcast as quickly and accurately as possible. Interested in learning more about communication best practices before an outbreak? Check out our upcoming webinar, 10 Steps to Prepare for an Epidemic/Pandemic, with special guest speaker Richard Serino. Richard was appointed by President Obama as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 8th Deputy Administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

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