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How to handle digital communications in a pandemic

A VCU class, Digital Media Strategies for the COVID-19 Crisis, is helping people learn how to effectively communicate in unprecedented times.
a computer screen showing coronavirus health statistics

As the pandemic continues to change the way we live and work, many people are required to handle some form of COVID-19 communications even if it isn’t normally part of their job. To address this growing trend, the Virginia Commonwealth University Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and Office of Continuing and Professional Education created a five-week course to help people learn how to handle digital communications in this type of worldwide crisis.

“We had little time to get the curriculum for the class together,” said Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D, director of the Robertson School’s Media+Health Lab. “We realized if we are going to do this, we need to do it now.”

The course, Digital Media Strategies for the COVID-19 Crisis, ran from March 30 to May 9 (a second session will take place from May 18 to June 18). It addressed a variety of issues, including how to create relevant messaging that will help people, processing ever-changing information, vetting messages and preventing the spread of misinformation.

“We are developing the course as we go with a situation that is sometimes changing daily,” Guidry said. “You have to be careful how you communicate in a situation like this because even official guidelines can change from one day to another. For example, when this course started the guideline was that masks were not recommended for the general public, and now they are recommended for people in public spaces when you are around other people.”

The Robertson School, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, wanted to provide the course online as quickly as possible, making sure it was accessible not only for credit to students but also to VCU faculty and staff, nonprofits and the community.

“It’s for anyone who wants to develop his or her communication skills in the midst of the pandemic regarding communications about the pandemic,” Guidry said.

Guidry is working on several research projects related to COVID-19, focusing on how to use digital platforms to inform people about the disease and other information, such as a future vaccine.

Her past and ongoing infectious disease research studies gave her the information she needed to provide a deep dive into COVID-19 research during the first week of the new course, which included several speakers — a physician, nurse, nursing professor and public health officials. “We wanted to get everyone in class on the same page,” Guidry said.

Communication regarding the disease can’t be effective if the person creating the message doesn’t understand the basics of the disease and how to prevent it, she said. “You have to know what you should be communicating before you can start to work on the communication.”

The subsequent weeks of the course’s first session included the overall principles of crisis communication and designing COVID-19 messaging, including discussions on colors, fonts and designs that would elicit attention.

“The design depends on the audience you want to reach and the message you want to get out,” Guidry said. “How a message is received is often determined by the format it takes on.”

"We are developing the course as we go with a situation that is sometimes changing daily. You have to be careful how you communicate in a situation like this because even official guidelines can change from one day to another."

The class also included discussions about health behavior theories. “We know from the field of psychology that people are more likely to make certain decisions regarding their health if you present messages in a certain way,” said Guidry, whose Ph.D. from the School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy is in social and behavioral sciences. “People will be willing to stay indoors and practice social distancing if you present the message in a certain manner.”

The key is to communicate in a trustworthy way, Guidry said.

“For example, when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, you have to communicate quickly that it’s crucial you get the vaccine,” Guidry said. “But you have to lay the foundation for that communication now.”

In the last week of the course’s first session, students learned about misinformation regarding COVID-19, much of which is found online.

Guidry’s passion for the course stems from the fact that there is currently no vaccine for the virus and communication needs to be accurate and inspire action. “The best thing we can do now is prevent spread of the disease, but we are working with a moving target. The projections go up and down,” she said. “We learn more about this virus every day — how it behaves and acts. Unless we adapt to these changes, our communications will be less effective.”

She hopes the course will help people feel more confident about the messages they need to convey.

“This is not what many of these people signed up to do in their jobs,” she said. “We can’t fix all of that in a five-week class but we can provide people with the best tools we have based on evidence-based practices in the shortest amount of time.”

Registration and details on the second session of the class may be found on the Office of Continuing and Professional Education website.

“The situation will be different then and we don’t know what that will look like,” Guidry said. “That is the challenge.”

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