Communicate a single message.

Coronavirus directives must contain a single message in every communication product. Tell people the one thing you want them to do and avoid modifiers.

Get to the point

Crisis communication as well as campaigns often falter by including multiple messages in a communication product. Think of an email that tells you the most important thing you can do is sign a petition...and donate...and share.

They often fall into the trap of thinking that readers prefer options and lean on modifiers. “Unable to donate? Sign the petition. Don’t want to sign? Tell five friends.” The reality is that you cannot simultaneously tell people that an action is vital and urgent while saying it is optional.

This is especially true during a health crisis where the public looks to governments for clear directives. They need to know what to do to stay safe. Period.

Single Overarching Communication Outcome
SOCO from the WHO communciation module

This is often called the One Message Rule or Single Message in communication or a Call-to-Action in campaigning and marketing. The Center for Disease control calls it a Single Overriding Health Communication Objective (SOHCO) in their Field Epidemiology Manual. The training has been adopted internationally and is simplifed by the WHO as SOCO (PDF) — Single Overarching Communication Outcome. Why not just ‘SCO’ while we are at it?

Single - The message.

Communication - What we are saying.

Objective - What people are doing.

This guidance is for how health officials should approach a press release, briefing or any other item intended to get the public to act. The singular aspect is often what gets overlooked in all manners of public communication, but the objective is an important addition. The objective isn’t about what should be said, or even be heard, but what people should do.

Communication in a pandemic is not about sharing information; it is about getting people to act. The goal is the same whether you call it ‘objective’ or ‘outcome’ - to get people to change behavior in a way that keeps everyone safe and healthy.

Your single message should be promoting one action you want everyone to take.

People need to know what to do – specifically, unambiguously and using simple language.

- Accurate, honest and transparent: how leaders should communicate about coronavirus

Show and tell

You communicate through visuals and your own actions just as much as words. One health official went viral (pun intended) for demanding a colleague stand a safe distance away during a press conference. This was no accident. He was following well-established rules that call on public health officials to demonstrate their single message.

In past emergencies that has meant health officials wearing masks even when they were at no risk. The opposite of Donald Trump saying he probably won’t wear a mask while announcing new guidelines.

Research following cholera outbreaks found that the best way to stop the spread was by exposing people to visuals of hand washing — often in the form of street plays. Talking about cholera had no effect on the outcome. Visual hand washing cues made a huge difference. Messages that are modelled will stick with people far more than those that are not.

Beware of message filtering

Don’t speak like an expert, get to the point

How often do you read the headline and not the article? How often do you see a post on Facebook or Twitter and never actually click through? This is message filtering in practice.

Assume that your message will get filtered through several layers before reaching the intended audience. Journalists, editors, social media managers, influencers, friends and family may all touch your message on the way to an individual. Each has their own incentive and angle when passing on information. Having a SOCO is your best chance at having an accurate headline that reaches your intended audience.

Think of the headline you would want to see in every paper in the world; the tweet you want shared; the Facebook post you want everyone to see – this is your single message. The more you repeat it the greater likelihood that it will filter to the public.

Wash, rinse, repeat

But having a single message isn’t enough. You have to repeat it ad nauseam if you want it to penetrate all those layers of filtering and ultimately stick. A good rule is that the moment you are sick of saying the same thing over and over is the first time the public is hearing it.

A single press conference can be a great place to practice this. An opening speaker should state the SOCO before bringing on others who reiterate the message and provide more information about the importance of the outcome. Each speaker should end by repeating the SOCO. The same speaker who opened should close the briefing by repeating it again.

The message should also be repeated in graphics and across all digital channels including social media.

The last word

People are facing a barrage of information during the coronavirus pandemic making simple communication imperative. Communication can change behavior and is one of the most important tools in stopping a health crisis, but only when clarity reigns. Find a single message that calls people to action and repeat it again...and again...and again.


Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation | Epidemic Intelligence Service | CDC
From the beginning of an event to its resolution and follow-up, public health authorities are expected to provide the news media with timely, accurate information and answers about the outbreak’s effects.
Accurate, honest and transparent: how leaders should communicate about coronavirus | Ullrich Ecker and Douglas MacFarlane
People will remain calm if they have clear and simple guidelines. The first step is to listen

WHO Risk Communication Module (PDF)
Oxfam - Hygeine Promtion: Determining What Works (PDF)