Communication Lessons From the Ebola Outbreak

Mina Chang
Mina Chang

Through my work with Linking the World, I’ve been involved in coordinating efforts during numerous crises, including the Ebola outbreak. While each situation is unique, the importance of effective communication in these instances isn’t. It can make or break a relief effort and determine how many lives are saved.

Here are 5 PR lessons from the Ebola outbreak.

1. Be aware of the communication barriers. Communication challenges have contributed to how quickly Ebola has spread throughout West Africa.

In the first regions affected, misinformation, social stigmas and illiteracy stifled NGOs’ efforts. There were also differences in how people perceived the message, depending on whether they were from large cities or small villages.

2. Give your audience a reason to care. Making an audience understand why it should care has always been a challenge for nonprofit organizations. No matter what message you’re spreading, it’s important to demonstrate specific ways your organization or cause connects to your audience.

We’ve tried to show people why they should care through communicating to them how quickly Ebola can spread and the impact it would have on the global economy.

3. Stick to your organization’s mission. It’s easy for nonprofits to get sucked into hype-based fundraising and trendy social campaigns, but those aren’t sustainable, and they often hurt the ones you serve or diminish the cause you’re championing.

For example, a humanitarian aid organization in the late 1990s launched a PSA that started: “Every 60 seconds in Africa, five children die of hunger.” This perpetuated the idea that Africans are helpless victims, incapable of solving their own problems and in need of a savior from the West.

It’s vital to avoid sensationalizing the causes we work with or demoralizing those in need by circulating horrific photos or implying that they’re helpless. No matter how visible your organization or cause is, don’t lose sight of the principles behind it.

4. Use caution when partnering up. There are several misconceptions about the Ebola virus and the outbreak.

When you’re helping in a crisis, it can feel like you spend more time correcting misinformation than spreading legitimate information.

We partnered with The Guardian to deliver accurate health and prevention notices to the communities we were serving. Many nonprofits like to partner with other organizations or celebrities.

Any partner you take on must be viewed as reliable and trustworthy. If you align your organization with a celebrity, you’ll forever be associated with that person’s brand and lifestyle.

5. Use social media and technology, but find a balance. Social media has played a major role in the dissemination of information throughout the Ebola outbreak.

It’s allowed governments, healthcare officials and aid organizations to communicate with citizens in real time. Social media has also transformed the way nonprofits raise awareness and support.

However, social channels should not be an organization’s primary method of communication. Relying on digital channels reinforces people’s tendency to stay behind computer screens rather than actively contribute.

Try and strike a balance between building an online following and communicating offline with supporters.

Consider the group you’re targeting and the platforms it uses to get information.

While traveling to some of the most remote places in the world, we saw people who had no food or water, but they had cell phones and used SMS messaging.

For disseminating information to people living in regions affected by Ebola, NGOs should definitely consider text messaging.

The Ebola outbreak proves that effective communication is essential to help those in need, coordinate humanitarian efforts, educate citizens and garner support and donations.

For your organization to serve effectively, it’s vital to learn how to communicate with clarity, compassion and conviction.

CONTACT:

Mina Chang is president-CEO of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization. She can be reached at mchang@linkingtheworld.org.