Communication central to health response in crises

WHO

Participants at a crisis communication workshop in Turkey in May 2013

Responding quickly and effectively to health emergencies challenges health authorities. Crisis communication must be an integral part of any early warning and response system (EWRS) at both the national and local levels. It will help improve preparedness for and response to health crises in the framework of the International Health Regulations (IHR). On 7–9 May 2013, 40 people took part in a national exercise in Ankara, Turkey, to ensure that crisis communication is an integral part of public health authorities’ response to threats to health and safety.

“After establishing the new EWRS in Turkey a year ago, we now need to optimize our work, and this includes embedding communication specialists in our technical teams. This will help build trust in peaceful times and help scale up collaboration during crises,” said Mehmet Ali Torunoglu, vice-president of the public health agency of Turkey. “There is also another aspect of this: technical specialists need to broaden the scope of their work to include risk perception and communication. This is how we can be really effective.”

Early communication with the public

Public health leaders from 22 provinces attended the workshop, along with national experts.

“It is now clear to me that crisis communication, including media relations, is part of my job,” commented Mehmet Yilmaz, who has been head of communicable diseases at the Kocaeli public health directorate for 13 years. “Our focus used to be solving public health issues before information could reach people; now I would support communicating with the public early on.”

“We need to reach all our population with sound messages during a crisis, and communication specialists at the provincial level should engage with local communities,” concluded Beste Gulgun, communication specialist in the Ministry of Health. “This workshop brought together many of those involved in crisis response in Turkey and internationally, and will help us to develop a national crisis communication plan.”

Key elements of crisis communication

The workshop explored key elements of crisis communication that were learned from disease outbreaks and other health emergencies. They include the need for transparent communication and for a public announcement early in an emergency. The workshop participants discussed familiar and new and old ways of listening to public concerns, from engaging people within their communities and the press to using social media.

The participants engaged in hands-on exercises with Turkish case studies contextualizing the discussion to national and local situations. They also laid the foundation for a national strategy for crisis communications.

The three-day workshop was organized (under a project on surveillance and control of communicable diseases funded by the European Union) by the Ministry of Health of Turkey with the support of WHO headquarters, WHO/Europe and the WHO Country Office, Turkey; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States of America; and Public Health England (PHE).