Practice Briefing 01

Publication Date
June 1, 2016

“BBC Media Action asserts that lives can be saved if high-quality media and communication is central to planning responses to any future disease outbreak, as opposed to being peripheral to the practical hardware of a response.”

This practice briefing sets out what BBC Media Action learned in delivering and supporting health communication in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014–15, focusing specifically on their activities in Sierra Leone. The paper aims to contribute to a body of knowledge about how to best harness and deploy media and communication in public health emergencies. It also underscores the need for the global community to plan and invest in communication long before any crises take hold, to ensure that communication plays a central role in reducing the impact of future crisis events.

The paper sets out the specific communication challenge posed by Ebola and why it was so difficult to get a grip on this in the early months of the outbreak. One of the issues highlighted was the “simplistic, often contradictory, top-down messages telling people what they should or should not do”, which sidelined the communities affected by the outbreak. Another issue was the absence of funding for a media response to Ebola during the early phase of the outbreak. 

The paper then documents when the health communication response became more useful and explores what this tells us about effective media and communication. It documents the formation of the Social Mobilisation Action Consortium (SMAC), which consisted of lead agency GOAL, key convener Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Restless Development, FOCUS 1000, and BBC Media Action. SMAC’s aim was “to go beyond top-down awareness-raising to foster meaningful engagement with communities, which empowered those communities to lead the response to Ebola.” The paper also outlines BBC Media Action's media response, which involved mutually reinforcing media and health communication interventions using multiple media platforms and genres. These included: a radio magazine programme, Kick Ebola Nar Salone (Kick Ebola Out of Sierra Leone); a live radio talk show called Kick Ebola Live; a series of six-minute radio dramas called Mr Plan-Plan and the People in six different languages; public service announcements; media training; and social media using the WhatsApp chat app and Facebook.

The document draws the following conclusions about what worked in relation to Ebola communication:

  • Communication reflecting people’s needs, concerns and voices - In Sierra Leone, both the national radio programmes produced by BBC Media Action and local programmes produced by partner radio stations made judicious use of trusted local sources, such as religious and community leaders, as well as compelling testimony from Ebola survivors and ordinary people affected by the epidemic. These were people who spoke the language of the audience, whom the audience could identify and connect with, rather than the voices of distant experts telling them what to do.
  • Positive communication that encouraged discussion and action - The initial emphasis on the incurable, untreatable, and highly contagious nature of Ebola – rather than constructive information about what people could do to limit its spread – had a negative impact on disease control. It stoked fear and inaction and increased denial of the disease. BBC Media Action’s media content was designed to enable audiences to make practical decisions and take action to protect themselves and others.
  • Consistent information across all platforms that recognised people’s situations - To avoid confusion, rumours, and misconceptions about a disease outbreak, people need to hear consistent, factually correct, and locally appropriate information from every communication source they encounter.
  • Building and maintaining trust - For health communication to be effective, both the information and the way it is communicated must be trusted. Lessons learned from the Ebola response suggest that the media, particularly local media, have a significant role to play in building community trust. Continuing investment and support for local media organisations to develop their own content is vital for enabling them to play this role in future.
  • Tailored responses involving local media - The Ebola crisis varied in different communities, and communication needed tailoring to respond to this. As national-level broadcasting cannot easily meet this need, direct support to local radio stations is important.
  • Communicating in the languages used by local audiences - The Ebola response reinforced the view that local-language programmes are critical for reaching the most vulnerable and at-risk communities with messages they can understand.
  • Using social media as part of a response - New media and technologies offer additional channels and networks through which to engage people, even in countries where traditional media still dominates. During the Ebola response, BBC Media Action’s use of social media enabled the organisation to address emerging issues and concerns in real time. The production team monitored social media to understand popular myths and issues that mattered to people, which were then addressed online and on the radio. Any myths or misinformation could then be quickly countered with accurate information.

Finally, the paper offers recommendations to ensure that media and communication are used to their full potential during other disease outbreaks or humanitarian crises.  In short, the recommendations are:

  • Recognise the importance of media and communication as central to a response from the outset
  • Invest in local media in low-income countries
  • Recognise the importance of strong central coordination of communication messages and ready access for journalists to relevant and accurate technical health advice
  • Strengthen procedures for responding to a public health emergency
  • Recognise that the media has an important role to play in the accountability of response services.

BBC Media Action website on July 11 2016.