How to Effectively Communicate Science during a Public Health Crisis: COVID19

Since early February 2020, KWR researchers have been monitoring sewage water at various wastewater treatment plants in The Netherlands in order to track COVID-19. Often, scientists’ work can go on “behind the scenes”, but this time it was radically different. In seeking to better understand the current crisis, foreign and domestic newspapers and news stations tumbled over one other to report on and feature the work of KWR microbiologists.

While the microbiologists were collecting and analysing sewage samples, another group of KWR researchers thought about how this science would be communicated to the public during the coronavirus crisis. As such, our team sought to research, develop and implement an integrated and resilient crisis communications approach. We wanted to equip our colleagues, partners and members with the tools and knowledge necessary for effective crisis and science communications related to water and public health.

Effective Crisis Communication

What we found is that effective crisis communication consists of a continuous loop of understanding, defining, communicating and monitoring the effectiveness of communications. Being able to effectively communicate scientific information to a non-expert audience is a huge task, especially in times of crisis when the pressure is on and the public are concerned. So this continuous loop is good in theory, but what does it mean in practice?

Let’s look at what you need to do as a scientist, supported by an effective crisis communications team:

  1. Be aware of what your audience knows or does not know, and provide content that is clear, concise and practical. It also means understanding how your audience thinks, feels and acts as a result of their perspectives, cultures, beliefs, and local contexts. During a crisis in which timely communication is vital, it is only possible to effectively know your audiences by having a long term plan with an in-depth investigation beforehand of the typical audiences to which you communicate.
  2. Communicate as part of a strategy with clear objectives with the help of communications specialists – this sounds more obvious than it is. After all, it’s not always about disseminating what you know as a researcher. Instead, it is about answering the questions: “What do you want to achieve with your communication?” And even more importantly, “What does the public need to know now?” to reduce fear, avoid panic, disprove rumours, and/or to provide instructions for safety.
  3. Communicate at the right time – this is especially important when it comes to a crisis, even when there are uncertainties that remain in the science. This is often a challenge for scientists, but timely responses are important and can help prevent harm when the current knowledge and uncertainties are communicated effectively. This means letting the audience know what you do not know by being transparent, open and accessible, and when and how you will share new information.
  4. Contextualise and adjust information in an appropriate way for your target audience – not merely communicating technical messages, but leaving room for instructive and empathetic messages as well.
  5. And to complete the circle, understand and monitor the impact of your communication efforts and the public’s perceptions, and then adjust the messages as necessary.

By working through these elements, you will have communicated an effective message to your target audience, and built trust among that audience as a scientist and institution that they can rely on in times of crisis.

Effective crisis communication is by no means self-evident. It requires knowledge, reflection, a well thought-out plan, and it takes time.

KWR Researcher Frederic Béen, team member of the sewage surveillance for COVID19 reflects that:

Communications have been demanding and time consuming, which makes sense in this situation as it is a unique crisis. Not only with the media, but […] even when coordinating collaborations […], which is an important lesson learned.” Furthermore, effective crisis communications necessitates a diverse team, including topic experts and communications experts, to deliver messages.
Frederic Béen PhD
Frederic Béen PhD
… in our team there are a lot of scientists, and we are not focused on communications […] so it would be good if someone was involved from the communications team in the project from early on.
Milou Dingemans PhD
Milou Dingemans PhD

Building a Community of Science Communicators

Are you ready for the next communications wave? Our full research report reads as a step-by-step guidance document with special guidance on communicating with the media that can be used as a practical tool to ensure that you are ready for future crisis communications related to water and public health. This will help you ensure that the appropriate communication measures are being implemented. We also have created a short flyer for practical use by water professionals and more. Keep this at your desk or on your screen and contribute to effective science communications by running through the steps, building useful habits as a science communicator.​

Step-by-step guidance

Dit overzicht van achtereenvolgens te doorlopen stappen biedt een handvat voor communicatie tijdens een crisis

A sequence of steps to assist you in communication during a crisis

Click on this image for a larger view or download the PDF in below link.