Crisis Management Tips Learned From the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

Mina Chang, President-CEO, Linking The World

Through my work with humanitarian aid organization Linking the World, I’ve been involved in coordinating efforts during numerous crises, including the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

While each situation is unique, the importance of effective communication in these instances isn’t. Similar to the ability of poor communication during a crisis to damage a brand badly, communication can make or break a relief effort and, most importantly, determine how many lives are saved.

Here are five PR lessons from the Ebola outbreak.

1. Be Aware of the Communication Barriers: Communication challenges contributed to how quickly Ebola 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. It is critical to be prepared in advance to overcome such barriers, particularly if your brand is working in places like West Africa.

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.

Linking the World has tried to show people why they should care by 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 began: “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.

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

4. Use Caution When Partnering: There were 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 and doing good works.

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 to spread messages.

It goes without saying that 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, so it’s critical to choose wisely.

5. Use Social Media 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.


This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.