Health & Wellness

Communicating about coronavirus can be difficult

Glen Nowak is director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication. (Photo by Sarah E. Freeman)

Communicating effectively during an outbreak can be tricky for government agencies charged with protecting the public, according to Glen Nowak, former director of media relations at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Below, Nowak shares some of his thoughts about the current coronavirus outbreak and what agencies have learned from previous outbreaks to make their communications more effective.

Is there anything about this current outbreak that is particularly difficult for people relaying information to the public?

“Well I think the uncertainty that the infectious disease and new infectious disease brings makes it really hard for a lot of the parties that are involved for the CDC. It is hard because you’re being asked questions about what is going to happen what is likely to happen and you don’t have answers.

“And so you have to be focusing on uncertainty. The news media has to make decisions as to how much are they going to play something up or play something down; that’s very difficult to do. Health care organizations have to decide how many resources they’re going to devote to trying to identify and screen patients quickly for this versus other things that are probably more likely to be causing illness at this time of year.”

How important is communication with the public during the beginning of an outbreak like the one we’ve seen associated with coronavirus?

“It’s essential to have constant and good communication because one of the things you’re doing is setting guiding and managing people’s expectations. A lot of times we think that we’re trying to give people information. We are but we’re also trying to get them to kind of understand what’s happening how it’s unfolding how it could unfold so that they have the appropriate and best responses.”

Does all the attention paid to coronavirus distract from potentially more important public health issues such as influenza?

“You know, one of the challenges when you have something like coronavirus which is new and is getting a lot of attention is are people going to pay attention to other more likely health threats? And I think CDC and other organizations are aware of that. And CDC is still trying to get messages out regarding influenza. I think one of the challenges that’s mostly probably on the media front is that reporters who are following coronavirus they are focused almost exclusively on coronavirus. They just don’t have the time and ability to cover more than one disease or health issue at a time.”

What lessons have we learned from previous outbreaks?

“There have been many lessons that have been learned. One of the first lessons is that you need to get information out quickly to more than one audience. And as a result, CDC and other organizations are not just working to get information out through the news media. They’re working to get information out through multiple channels, such as their Web site such as health care providers, such as partners people who can reach other entities airlines traveler travelers cruise lines. So there are a lot of things that are happening that are not quite as visible as the media relations.”