The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep structural problems that go far beyond conventional ideas of public health, not least the impacts of pervasive inequality and racism. Civil society is mobilising to adapt and respond. Our ability to drive change will depend in part on our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways, harnessing the power of data and digital technology. The emergency has shown that the right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual behaviours and collectively save lives all over the world.

The iconic “Flatten the Curve” graph, which encouraged people everywhere to help contain the spread of COVID-19, is a case in point. It shows how measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can squash the expected peak of the pandemic, and keep infection numbers low enough for healthcare systems to manage. This simple public health chart, which originated in specialist journals and reports, was widely shared by traditional newspapers and magazines, then refined to clarify the message even further, translated into many languages, and creatively reworked into animations, cartoons and even cat videos.

Image: The Spinoff

The success of “Flatten the Curve” shows that it is possible to communicate urgent facts and instructions in a way that is compelling and emotionally resonant.

This aligns with research by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) – a collaborative of funders supporting efforts worldwide to assure that people are informed and empowered and governments open and responsive. Through interviews and group discussions with civil society campaigners, community organizers and technology and media experts, TAI has gathered important lessons on how to communicate vital messages to build a better world as part of a broader World Economic Forum dialogue on the future of civil society. Here are some elements of what such crisis-informed, responsible communication and campaigning could look like:

1. Tap the power of data – but in an ethical way

As shown by the “Flatten the Curve” message, data can be a powerful tool to effect change in policy and attitudes. There is more data available than ever before, and civil society needs to take full advantage of this. We need to be savvy in data sourcing, analysis and presentation. Big data analytics should not be the preserve of governments or big corporates alone.

Yet, civil society groups also need to align data gathering and use with considerations of data rights and protections. Only last year, a health non-governmental organization suffered a data breach affecting the information of a million New Zealanders. Assuring adequate cyber security is one important element, but civil society groups need to be asking questions of how they gather and use data: Is the data legitimately sourced? Is it accurately presented? Is it truly anonymized?

Civil society then has credibility when critiquing the data governance failings of governments and corporates. This role is revealed as all the more important amid the pandemic. Campaigners and activists, but also scientists, educators and anyone with an interest in safeguarding their data can get involved. To take one example, Germany’s change in approach to using personal data for contact tracing was encouraged by a letter from hundreds of researchers.

2. Data alone is not enough

To be both comprehensible and compelling, data needs an effective message to support it. That means selecting the right data points and format for your audience, and using the power of story to engage the heart and the gut as well as the brain. Storytelling involves structuring information like a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, interesting real-life characters and surprising twists, and a problem or struggle at the core that is somehow changed or resolved at the end. “Flatten the Curve”, for example, visually conveys the existential threat of an epidemic peak overwhelming healthcare systems, then offers the solution of everyone working together to squash that spike and save themselves and their fellow humans.

Policy experts and communications experts often argue over what is “too much information,” but in recent workshops and interviews public interest research and advocacy groups told us that the choice between rigor and inspiration is false. The two are mutually supportive. “No numbers without stories,” David Devlin Foltz of the Aspen Institute, a non-profit think tank, advised, “and no stories without numbers.”

The importance of data and storytelling needs to be embedded in the culture of organizations and used by all staff, not just the communications team. This means teaching people how to find and use meaningful data in their field, and craft it into messages and compelling stories that elicit action. Funders in turn should be supportive of those investments. They should also be reflecting on their own messaging and how they can add their voice constructively or “pass the microphone” to others.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.