An innovative communications strategy to face the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

4 June 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has caused two pandemics: COVID-19, and the proliferation of misinformation about this virus, a phenomenon called ‘infodemic’. The latter travels and spreads much faster than the first, taking over the screens of televisions, computers, phones and other devices around the world.

The term ‘infodemic’, formally coined by the World Health Organization, is causing emotional instability or distress. It does not allow people to easily find trustworthy sources to guide their decision making. And it presents challenges for evidence producing organisations, including think tanks, to effectively reach their audience.

The ideas of think tanks are essential for the recovery from this pandemic’, says Leonora Merry, Director of Communications for the Nuffield Trust, an independent think tank focused on improving the quality of public health in the UK. For decision makers, the evidence raised by think tanks helps them have a clearer picture of reality, and evidence-informed recommendations that allow them to make better decisions.

In this sense, to face this ‘infodemic’ think tanks must proactively break the barriers that it creates; break through the noise of misinformation and overabundance of information with creativity; and develop strategies to achieve a higher rate of advocacy and social impact.

As Castillo and Smolak (2016) say: ‘to undertake the role of disseminating ideas and policy proposals, think tanks need to develop communication strategies that allow them to have a social presence.’ Never has this been truer. Think tanks need to think creatively to break through the ‘infodemic’ barriers. They need to translate ideas into language and formats that are accessible to their non-academic audiences. And focus on proactive, rather than passive, social and traditional media engagement strategies. That means, not just ‘being’ on social media, but using it as a medium to actively engage with audiences. Not waiting to be approach by journalists, rather seeking the media out.

Five examples of our strategy against the ‘infodemic’

At Equilibrium CenDE, our strategy for content development, dissemination, and communications in general, goes beyond thinking about academic elites and decision makers. We are a think tank that works under the motto of creating content for everyone.

We work, and learn, by thinking ‘outside the box’, and this has helped us enormously to fight the ‘infodemic’, and create political advocacy and social impact during these difficult times.

Here we present five examples of how we’re achieving effective communications to fight the ‘infodemic’. While making the following list, we were inspired by Leonora Merry’s presentation at DGAP’s virtual seminar:

  1. We anticipate news and, at the same time, think beyond the news cycle. A good example of this strategy was the first survey (and later analysis) we conducted on the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine on Venezuelan migrants in Peru, published just ten days after the quarantine began. The financial impact shown by the data was solid evidence for all of our audiences, including decision makers. We presented results that would have relevance, longevity and impact for more than one day – that were a great source for the news of the next few days, and beyond.
  2. The communication area works closely, and in coordination with, other areas of our think tank. After the above-mentioned first survey, we quickly learned that we needed to broaden our focus to the other main Venezuelan migrant host countries, and Venezuela itself. Thus, we ended up conducting four more surveys: one more in Peru, one in Colombia, one in Ecuador and one in Venezuela. Outreach of survey results (for example, in the media, to academia, and to decision makers) was the product of a coordinated and dynamic effort among all areas of our organisation.
  3. We are not afraid to repeat things and re-publish our content on our social networks through different formats. In the world of immediacy, repeating ideas is not bad, it is emphasising those ideas. A good example of this is our comparative contents, where we make parallels between new studies and previous ones, to identify similarities or differences. This content is disseminated in different formats: videos, infographics, articles, etc. We try to turn complex ideas into concrete, understandable and useful ideas for our audiences.
  4. We hold weekly communications strategy planning meetings. In other words, a lot of things happen backstage. We share our articles, reports and proposals with researchers, governments, and other organisations (alternative media, mass media, civil organisations, NGOs, universities, observatories, among others). In addition, every week we contact new organisations to introduce ourselves and expand our reach.
  5. We have turned the challenges of quarantine into an opportunity for innovation in our work and to continue connecting with our audience. A good example of this is that we have launched our #WebtalkCenDE webinar series, and we have in mind to organise a variety of similar digital events to connect with our audience and key stakeholders. These types of events are rich, offering an opportunity for dialogue with different actors and to nourish our academic approaches.

Moments like the one we are experiencing now require unprecedented actions. For think tanks, it is time to create. It is a time to carry out innovative and disruptive strategies to break the ‘infodemic’ barriers and achieve the greatest possible political advocacy and social impact. Passive strategies and academic bubbles are now gone. For think tanks today, ‘thinking outside the box’ is the call to action.