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Joel R

Lessons from the Virus: Community Engagement from WHO

This is the July edition of my 2020 Community Management series to help Invision Communities of all sizes build successful communities. Today’s article brings real-world guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) to online communities in effectively managing their communication strategies.  

Read other community management articles and company updates in the Invision Community Blog, a free service to help Invision Community clients start and manage successful communities.    

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the world's most trusted source of information on international health, and a foremost partner to public health agencies combating the coronavirus.  They also understand the critical need for risk communication and community engagement to respond to the coronavirus pandemic -- a valuable strategy that any online community can adopt in these volatile times.  

In March of this year as the coronavirus was already rampaging across nations, WHO published a series of guidance for risk communication and community engagement.  One of the major lessons they learned during some of the most perilous outbreaks including SARS, Ebola, and MERS was that community engagement was a critical factor in the success of containing any pandemic.  


Here are 3 best practices from the World Health Organization that can help online communities navigate any crisis.  


One of the biggest problems hampering the effective treatment of coronavirus, or any major disruptive event in a community, is the excessive abundance of information - an "infodemic" from multiple and untrustworthy sources that reduces trust in any advice.  The flood of information can quickly overwhelm any at-risk population.  

Community leaders need to proactively communicate.  As WHO recommends, "One of the most important and effective interventions to any event is to proactively communicate what is known, what is unknown, and what is being done to get more information."  Communication from community leaders establishes the chain of communication and establishes themselves as a source of credible information.  By getting out in front of disruptive events and staying in regular communication with your members, you build trust and ensure that proper advice will be followed.  


Different groups of people perceive the same problem differently.  In the case of coronavirus, WHO discovered that certain segments of the population didn't understand the risk of the virus as much as they should have - a gap of knowledge that effective communication would have addressed for different populations.  Part of the goal of WHO's risk communication and community engagement is to "help transform and deliver complex scientific knowledge so that it is understood by and trusted by populations and communities."  

Community leaders need to tailor their communication to sub-groups.  While regular announcements and general updates are important for the community at-large, it leaves knowledge gaps for different sub-groups of your community membership: clients need to be informed of service interruptions; vendors need to be informed of supply chain disruptions; superusers need to know how to direct users for help.  Different stakeholders have differing needs, and each group requires customized and tailored communication to best navigate through the crisis.  


One of WHO's recommended actions for leaders was to be prepared to communicate about the first coronavirus case, even before the full picture was known.  Even today, much is unknown and data is still being compiled about coronavirus.  But in a digital world where misinformation gets mixed in with the ease of a tweet or share, it's more important than ever to communicate factually while acknowledging uncertainty.

Address uncertainty by systematically collecting questions and providing answers to all questions.  In the beginning of any crisis, you won't have all the answers and events will still be unfolding.  It's critical to establish an early dialogue with your community to gather concerns from members, to monitor for misinformation, and to systematically compile questions into a FAQ. 


Source:   Risk communication and community engagement readiness and response to coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Interim guidance 19 March 2020. World Health Organization.  


On behalf of the entire IPS team, we wish our clients well wishes during these difficult times!  


Executive Summary

  • Problems of crisis: infodemics with excess information, different perceptions of risk among sub-groups, and uncertainty with misinformation.
  • Solutions for community leaders: proactive communication, customized communication, and addressing uncertainty.  


Recommended Comments

It's important to "really" know your audience.  Many people tasked with communicating to a wide audience assume readers have sufficient "real world" experience and college-level reading ability (In the language being used) in which to be able to "really" understand the message that is trying to be conveyed.  

There was a time people actually had a love of words, think back to the time of Shakespeare.  Now it seems people take a certain pride in trying to communicate with others with the fewest characters (not words) they can.  This is causing people to have shorter and shorter attention spans.  

"Executive Summaries" are a great way of providing a simplified explanation of a topic and cater to those folks with short attention spans. 

If you choose to use abbreviations or words not commonly used it is helpful to provide an explanation of their meaning.  

Lastly, writers often focus their attentions on details (or choosing just the right words) and completely forget to call the readers to some kind of action.  Some folks have more time than money, while others have money but little free time.  Most any call to action can readily utilize both so don't focus all of your attention on one group.  Give your readers a multitude of ways to be of service in the short and long term.  






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