Associations have a responsibility to communicate with their members and the public about COVID-19 and vaccination. Here are some pitfalls to avoid when doing so.
While we have been living with the pandemic for quite a while, it can still be challenging to figure out how to best discuss it with your audience.
This is particularly true as associations begin in-person operations again, whether that’s returning to the office or hosting conferences.
Here is a list of tips and recommendations for discussing COVID-19 in an inclusive way that respects your audience and avoids creating a stigma around people who have contracted the disease:
- Maintain the privacy of those seeking care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that discussing another person’s medical care generates stigma. With that in mind, if someone is part of a contact-tracing exercise or has chosen not to publicly disclose a COVID-19 diagnosis, it’s not your organization’s place to “out” that person.
- Avoid using terminology that implies others are a risk. The World Health Organization says in its social stigma guide [PDF] that using phrases that assign responsibility to people with COVID-19 can make it seem like they have done something wrong. “Using criminalizing or dehumanizing terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human than the rest of us, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, and potentially fueling wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening, testing, and quarantine,” the organization states. Instead of discussing the disease in terms of “transmitting COVID-19,” “infecting others,” or “spreading the virus,” use words such as “acquiring” or “contracting” the disease.
- Don’t associate the disease with a specific region or ethnicity. As WHO notes in its social stigma guide, the name COVID-19 was intentionally chosen to avoid stigmatizing any region or population.
- Call the virus by its proper name when needed. Simply calling the virus “the coronavirus” isn’t fully accurate, as there are multiple types of coronaviruses. COVID-19 is generally the accepted name, according to the Associated Press Stylebook [subscription], with “COVID” acceptable in direct quotes, space-constrained headlines, and proper names. It’s also important to note that there are many variants of the virus, with the delta variant currently the most common. Follow guidance on those names from WHO.
- Focus on facts, and correct rumors. An information void can foster an environment for misinformation, says the American Psychological Association [PDF]. The organization recommends clearing up myths where possible and highlighting factual information to your intended audience. “Clear, concise, and culturally appropriate communication—in multiple forms and in multiple languages—is needed to reach broad segments of the population, with particular focus on marginalized communities,” the organization says.
- Be thoughtful with terminology around the vaccine. The way we talk about vaccines can create confusion and potentially misinform the public. The AP Stylebook’s coronavirus topical guide has an entire section detailing how to describe the vaccine (not as a drug, medicine, or serum), as well as how to discuss side effects (“use caution in reporting”). This extends to those who choose not to receive the vaccine as well: The AP specifically warns against using the term “anti-vaxxer” except in a direct quote that is properly explained. A neutral approach helps to ensure balance and clears the berth for providing reliable information on protective measures.
- Avoid using misleading or hyperbolic language. As an association, your role is to be a general resource for your membership and the public. Inflammatory language, such as “plague” and “apocalypse,” goes against that mandate; it can even create unnecessary risk or harm. WHO recommends taking a more positive approach in your messaging. “For most people, this is a disease they can overcome,” the organization notes.