How to communicate through crisis events
This blog post is about communicating at a difficult time.
You’ll note that I am not using the cor-word, the pan-word, or the abbreviation with 19 in it. This is because I want to keep this post out of search results. I don’t want people looking for health advice to end up here.
There seems to be some frustration bubbling up with the way content is being presented while everyone is scrambling to do the best job possible. Here are a few things to think about.
Don’t publish if you don’t need to.
The first question is always: ‘do we need this at all’? If you are selling trainers, you do not need to publish what the symptoms are. It is much better to link to authoritative sources. This is for two reasons:
- As the situation changes, authoritative sources like government and government health websites are more likely to have accurate up-to-the-minute information that could save lives.
- You do not need website traffic more than people need information about their own health.
Don’t clutter up search results. If someone else is doing it better, let them. Point to them. Help everyone.
Only publish if you can add value for your audience.
We understand that working in silos is a problem in government and large organisations. Don’t communicate from one. People need a single, coherent message. In most cases, your audience couldn’t care less which department is doing what. They just want information. Get together, work out the mental models, language and needs of your audience. Communicate as a whole.
This includes emails.
Many of us are getting emails from companies we have long forgotten about. Supermarkets, delivery companies, pharmacies and the like, great. You probably have important information like:
- changes to schedules,
- limits on stock,
- what you are doing to make sure we don’t run out of anything.
If you have concrete things to say, do. But if you are just commiserating and saying that you are committed to cleaning, ask yourself if you need to. What else can you say to help? Do you need to send an email at all? Some cafes are posting Instagram stories of them cleaning. Would that be more reassuring? Choose the right channel for your communications.
Structure: design and content.
It’s easier to grasp information on a page clearly split into sections. These could be:
- social events (or whatever).
With a clear design, properly coded, your audience can take in all the information in a glance.
Which is perfect and we should be doing it.
For sighted people.
Think about those who might be accessing your information in a different way.
Someone using a screenreader can’t ‘glance’. They have to listen to all the headings or all the text to find the one they want, which may be the last one on the page. If you’ve put 50 unstructured content items on that page, that’s still a fair amount of listening at whatever speed.
We have a 20 second rule. If I can’t listen or see and work out what I am going to get from a page in that time, the page could be improved.
But back to point 1 – unless you are government, it is unlikely you will need to do any of that kind of content.
If you have one page on this topic, you still need to structure it.
Think about the different prompts or reasons for someone to come to the page and organise it along those lines. Or, identify the different groups that will use the page and organise it by those. A long page of random stuff shoved together is not going to help anyone.
Working with designers is so helpful, however, many don’t have multidisciplinary teams. I’d say ‘do what you can’. Rely on good language (Google trends and search engine optimisation tools can help you), titles and white space if necessary.
The titles and subheads on any page should tell a story. Your audience should know what they are going to get from a page from the headings alone.
Be clear. Be concise. Statements are better than questions. You can front-load statements with the language your audience are using so it’s familiar and faster to understand.
"What are the symptoms of Coro–?" or "Symptoms"
"When do I self-isolate?" or "Staying at home"
The second ones are much faster to understand. Starting a sentence with what, when, why or other question terms means you are already adding unnecessary words.
Most of us are under pressure. Time to make it easy.
Statements work fine for search engine optimisation (SEO) tools and voice-activated devices. Search engines are far smarter than only picking up content because it is in the exact format asked for. With voice, you can say ‘what’s the weather today?’ and your device will pick up a page with the title: ‘Weather in London’. It will then tell you you don’t need an umbrella.
You can use schema code to mark up pages that are structured well. You don’t need to write headings in a question format. Take a look at this blog post: Making GOV.UK more than a website, from GDS explains.
You know what the 3 main titles are – the ones that are not used on this page. Worldwide, one term is much higher than the other.
Taking –19 with the hyphen out (punctuation is commonly dropped in search terms), we get:
Seems clear what people are searching for. Go with what’s higher but watch it – language changes. And in this instance, it might change faster than usual.
You can add both:
if you want to cover all possibilities. Use it in the title or the first time you use it on the page. Then use the coro-word in the main text.
Clear language on every channel you have right now is important. Be consistent.
Also, know your audience.
Short, active sentences.
Long passive sentences, using negatives or double negatives are generally unhelpful to many. Use active, positive language to get the point across quickly.
See what I did there?
"Does Ibuprofen worsen the disease for people with –19? At present, based on currently available information, WHO does not recommend against the use of all ibuprofens. We’re also consulting with physicians treating cope with –19 patients and I’m not aware of any reports of any negative effects of ibuprofens, beyond the usual known side-effects that limit is speak to use himself population. WHO are not aware of published clinical or population-based data on this topic."
Given the content above, the solution could be:
"Taking Ibuprofen with —19. It is safe to take painkillers like ibuprofen as long as you read the instructions, are not allergic to the ingredients and follow all the advice."
Reading into this a bit more on the press reels site, it could actually be:
"Taking ibuprofen with —19. There is a chance Ibuprofen can mask the symptoms of a virus. If you have medication containing ibuprofen or cortisone, continue to take it and contact your doctor if necessary. If you don’t take that kind of medicine, take small amounts of paracetamol."
- "Take the smallest dosage necessary and the longest time between doses.
- Respect the daily maximum dose and the maximum treatment time.
- Take it for 3 days for fever and 5 days for pain if no there is no prescription.
- Make sure that there is no paracetamol in other medicines like for pain, fever, allergies, cold or flu.
- People who weigh less than 50kg, those with liver or kidney problems and chronic alcoholism should not use paracetamol."
I have no idea if those bullet points are correct. I’ve copied (and tweaked) them from the pressreels site. But you can see how much more useful it is.
Note: I am not poking at the WHO team. They are probably doing an amazing job under extremely stressful circumstances. I am sitting in my office, drinking tea, writing blog posts. I just use it as an illustration.
(Thank you to @evidencematters and @kidney_boy for the tweet that led to this part of the post)
Trust comes from a multitude of places. Previous experience, design, language, belief, perception, and much more. But you can do a single thing to help: show the ‘edges’ of your content.
Take a look at the homepage on this: https://covid19.ca.gov
It’s a great example of prioritisation, clear language and structure. You can take a lot of information in quickly.
If people can’t see where information starts and stops, they will keep looking. You won’t stop people looking for new information right now, even if you are an authoritative source.
We all want certainty and it doesn’t exist. So we’ll keep looking anyway. BUT (and it is a shouty BUT in caps), if you are an authoritative source like government, you may be able to get people who see new information elsewhere to come back to you to verify it. That’s what you want right now.
Dates and times.
We are swamped with information right now. The subject is on every channel. Reassurance and trust will come from knowing how up-to-date your content is. Think about adding those ‘Last updated’ dates.
On social media, we’ve seen brands posting images with a lot of text.
It’s really not difficult to make all images accessible and yet many are just images with no alt-text. If you see one on social media please politely get in touch and tell them how to do it. If many of us contact them, we might get somewhere. Some may not think this is important in the current crisis. It is. It always is.
Oh, and can governments (local and national) please sort out your sign language provision. We are not seeing nearly enough. Signly can help you.
There’s a lot to communicating in a crisis. This is just a summary of some of the most important things you can do. We’ll probably post more soon.
Hope you are well.