WHO Best Practices for Communicating During a Pandemic

The World Health Organization Media Handbook

Disease outbreaks are inevitable, and often unpredictable, events. The environment surrounding an outbreak is unique in all of public health. Outbreaks are frequently marked by uncertainty, confusion and a sense of urgency. Communication, generally through the media, is another feature of the outbreak environment. Unfortunately, examples abound of communication failures which have delayed outbreak control, undermined public trust and compliance, and unnecessarily prolonged economic, social and political turmoil. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes it is now time to acknowledge that communication expertise has become as essential to outbreak control as epidemiological training and laboratory analysis. But what are the best practices for communicating with the public, often through the mass media, during an outbreak?

WHO Guidelines for Communicating With the Public During Outbreaks

In early 2004, WHO began an effort to construct evidence-based, field-tested communication guidance that would promote the public health goal of rapid outbreak control with the least possible disruption to society. The first step in this process was an extensive review of the risk communication literature. During this process, WHO identified risk communication components which had direct relevance to outbreaks. Then, this body of material was distilled into a handful of features strongly associated with communication effectiveness or, when lacking, strongly associated with failures. Finally, these few features were assessed by outbreak control experts from a wide variety of cultures, political systems and economic development. The result of this extensive review, filtered through a broad practical assessment, is a shortlist of outbreak communication best practices. They are listed below.