The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual was created for communicators at government agencies, but it offers scientific insights and ideas anyone can use for effective communication. Nonprofits and foundations are trusted institutions in our society, and all of the individuals who are part of or connected to your organizations can help the effort by spreading useful messages, counter harmful ones, and encourage beneficial behaviors.

Our Mission: Promote Productive Action

“Effective communication during a crisis is not an attempt at mass mental therapy, nor is it a magic potion that fixes all problems. Nonetheless, to reduce the psychological impact of a crisis, the public should feel empowered to take actions that will reduce their risk of harm.”

— CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual

Notice the emphasis on action. The primary purpose of communication at this time is to motivate people to adopt behaviors that stop the spread of the virus. Without good information and guidance, some will take counter-productive actions in a crisis, so our mission is to promote productive action.

Stopping the spread remains a challenge. You can help the public health experts encourage social isolation and educate people about social distancing, which may become more difficult as time wears on and people get restless.

You can help counter misinformation — and disinformation — that makes it harder to flatten the curve. You can help address a psychological dynamic that played out on beaches packed with college students on spring break: the tendency to resist expert advice that limits our freedoms, and do the exact opposite.

The harms of this pandemic are both physical and psychological, such as the stress of sickness, social isolation, and financial insecurity. Some communities, such as the Asian American community, are facing the additional stress of stigma, stereotyping and blame for the pandemic.

Nonprofit and foundation leaders and communicators can share information and encourage action to address all of these. We can also offer hope — and support people’s aspirations to be their best selves in the face of this challenge.

Below, you’ll find insights and ideas based on the CDC’s communication manual, meant to inspire your own creative thinking. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a sampling from more than 400 pages of guidance based on expert experience and communications science.

Starting with Science: Motivation 101

“For someone to move to action, (they) must see a personal benefit to taking the action and believe the action can be accomplished.”
“Seeing or hearing that others are taking actions…can be a powerful social influence.”
“The more socially desirable and easily undertaken a recommended action is, the more likely that it will be accepted.”

— CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual

The insights in the CDC’s manual are based on social science research and best practices in crisis communications. Below are selected tips for messaging and tactics to encourage productive action. (Many of these are second nature to talented communicators, but they bear repeating.)

Science-based Tips for Communicating in a Crisis

Keep messages super simple. When under stress, people can’t process complex ideas or information.

Use consistent messages. In a crisis, people actively seek to confirm information from multiple sources. It’s important to consistently repeat messages from credible public health leaders.

State the benefits of taking action. It might seem obvious, but it’s critical to clearly state the benefits of a specific action to the individual — as well as their loved ones and their community.

Promote simple actions. People are discouraged by complexity. They need to see that the action is straightforward.

Share stories of people taking action. Ultimately, this is the most powerful form of motivation. People are much more likely to take actions that we see others taking.