COVID-19: Understanding the World Health Organization’s Strategic Communications Framework
WHO educates and informs healthcare decision-makers, providing accessible, relevant, timely, and credible messaging
As people worldwide look for updates, guidance, and reliable information about the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of a trusted source cannot be overemphasized. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the leading authority on international public health, and during this time, it can be helpful to understand their communications framework.
Since 1947, the World Health Organization, the UN’s global health agency, has focused on delivering “the highest attainable standard of health” for all people.1 With 194 member states representing the interests of approximately 7.7 billion people worldwide, these simple words articulate a massive goal. To perform this vast and honorable mission, WHO adopted a Strategic Communications Framework that oversees the organized execution of its communications strategy across the world.
The framework guides the WHO communications flow within and between its corporate communications, regional offices, and country offices2 as well as externally, to key audiences. The WHO views its key audiences as those that make health decisions for themselves or a wider group, and includes individuals, healthcare providers, policymakers, communities, stakeholders such as international organizations, and WHO staff. Aiming “[t]o provide information, advice, and guidance” to these groups, WHO’s communications efforts endeavor “to prompt action that will protect the health of individuals, families, communities, and nations.”3
To provide the most effective and coordinated messaging possible, the WHO Strategic Communications Framework strives to employ the following principles in all of its communications:4
In order to reach all populations with critical health messaging, the WHO must ensure its communications are accessible. It considers the channels populations have access to and prefer to use. Considerations also include how to provide information to hard-to-reach audiences,5 including those with low vision and other disabilities.
Mass communication and nontraditional channels are useful for reaching wide audiences, but these communications should also be supplemented with online information. Online resources should be easy to locate and highlight the most critical material. WHO resources should also be available in multiple languages to reach the most people.6
World Health Organization communications must contain actionable information. In other words, messages should induce key audiences to adopt new behaviors or abstain from unhealthy ones to safeguard health. To inform WHO messaging, communications should consider the current knowledge level and behaviors of its audiences. These messages should also outline the steps necessary to adopt desired behavior changes and convey their urgency.2
If key audiences believe the WHO to be a credible organization, they will not only respect their messages, but also act on them and advise others to do the same. WHO communications strive to bolster WHO’s image as a trustworthy organization, and an authority on all issues and information related to global health.
To be credible, WHO communications should be technically accurate and straightforward. The messaging should also be consistent across materials and channels.2
If decision-makers don’t view WHO messages as relevant to them or those in their care, they’ll be ignored. Relevant communications garner interest, and increase the likelihood that audiences will act on them.2 To create relevant messaging, the WHO Strategic Communications Framework calls for understanding audiences, listening to their feedback and creating tailored content and messaging to address their needs.7
The critical nature of WHO communications demands timeliness. This is especially necessary for emerging and novel risks and emergencies.4 To communicate critical messages in a timely manner, WHO must convey its knowledge quickly, so that health decision-makers can act swiftly, decisively, and confidently on the information.2
Regardless of how timely, credible, and accessible your communications messages are, it’s critical that they are understood by numerous audiences. WHO works to convey clear and unencumbered messaging that can be understood across media and communications channels.
To relate to audiences, WHO communications avoid jargon-filled or overly technical language. Straightforward language is preferred, and when possible, should include narratives to make the messaging more personal. Smart use of visuals help express concepts across language barriers. And finally, communications should be available in multiple languages to reach the greatest number of health decision-makers.2
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