Risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) is an integral part of a public health emergency response at every level. Emergency risk communication is a two-way communication between health authorities and at-risk populations that can be used to help an individual make a decision in response to many questions.
Risk communication refers to the exchange of real-time information, advice and opinions between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic or social well-being. The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives. Through effective communication, we can impact how our community responds to and recovers from these potentially devastating emergencies.
Risk communication uses many communications techniques like media and social media communications, mass communications and community engagement. It also requires the early identification and management of rumours, misinformation and other challenges.
RCCE is an essential component of health emergency readiness and response activities because of the following reasons:
Ø During public health response to any event it is very important to communicate proactively with the objectives of saving lives and minimizing adverse consequences. Communication should be about what is known, what is unknown and what is being done to get more information,
Ø RCCE helps prevent infodemics (an excessive amount of information about a problem that makes it difficult to identify a solution) and minimizes and manages rumours and misunderstandings that influence responses and may lead to further disease spread.
Ø Regular and proactive communication and engagement with the public and at-risk populations can help alleviate confusion and avoid misunderstandings.
Ø People have the right to be informed about and understand the health risks that they and their loved ones face.
Ø The perception of risk among affected populations often differs from that of experts and authorities therefore good RCCE can help bridge that gap by determining what people know, how they feel and what they do in response to disease outbreaks, as well as what they ought to know and do to bring the outbreak under control.
Ø Effective RCCE uses community engagement strategies to involve communities in the response and develops acceptable and beneficial interventions to stop further spread of the outbreak and to ensure that individuals and communities take protective measures.
Ø RCCE is essential for surveillance, case reporting, contract tracing, caring for the sick, delivering clinical care and gathering local support for any logistic and operational needs for the response.
Ø Effective RCCE can minimize social disruption. Therefore, in addition to protecting health, it can protect jobs, tourism and the economy.
Main principles of RCCE to execute a solid communication plan are-
Ø Be first: Communicating information quickly is crucial in public health emergencies so that members of the public make this information their first source.
Ø Be right: Information should include what is known, what is not known, and what is being done to fill in the gaps.
Ø Be credible- Honesty and truthfulness should not be compromised during crises.
Ø Express empathy: Crises create harm, and the suffering should be acknowledged in words. Addressing what people are feeling, and the challenges they face, builds trust and rapport.
Ø Promote action: Giving people meaningful things to do calms anxiety, helps restore order, and promotes some sense of control.
Ø Show respectful communication: It is particularly important when people feel vulnerable and it promotes cooperation.
Five things to be avoided during RCCE
1. Mixed messages from multiple experts
2. Information released late
3. Paternalistic attitudes
4. Not countering rumors and myths in real-time
5. Public power struggles and confusion
RCCE action plan guidance: It includes a 7-step process:
a) Collect existing information and conduct rapid qualitative and/or quantitative assessments to learn about the communities (knowledge, attitudes and perceptions about public health emergency occurring at that time such as COVID-19, most at risk population, communication patterns and channels, language, religion, influencers, health services and situation).
b) Coordinate existing mechanisms or create new ones to engage with RCCE at all levels of the response: local, regional and national.
c) Define and priorities objectives in order of their importance and objectives need to be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time bound).
d) Identify target audiences and key influencers to develop RCCE strategy needs and the local situation.
e) Develop RCCE strategy that should be based on the qualitative analysis results, defined key objectives and audiences, and fits into your response strategy.
f) Implement the endorsed RCCE plan with relevant partners to engage with identified audiences and community.
g) Monitor: Develop a monitoring plan for evaluation purposes and to measure the impact of the RCCE strategy after the implementation of activities.
When the public has low knowledge about the risk during public health emergency, trust plays an important part in public perceptions about severity of that risk. Hence, maintaining and nurturing trust in government is a major concern in communicating emergency risk to the public.
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