As of April 6, in the United States, you could still order a bowling ball, a 10-pack of rubber chickens, and a prom dress and have them show up at your door within a week. All of the items are described on the website as either “Fulfilled by Amazon” or “Ships from and sold by,” and none of the items are in the categories previously deemed essential.

-- The Markup

Recommendation: Use ‘necessities’ or ‘necessary’ instead of ‘essential’ and give clear directives. Even better, list 3-5 categories that are necessary or essential.

The word ‘essential’ causes uncertainty and confusion by the very nature of its subjectivity. Define what is ‘essential’ with commonplace examples as well as uncommon examples that help define boundaries.

If you must use one-word use ‘necessary’ instead of ‘essential. It’s preferable to give guidance with categories and allow the public and business owners to dive deeper for specifics. For example:





These are categories that help identify what will remain open during a government-mandated shutdown. Yes, it doesn’t cover everything but it gives a greater context for people than ‘essential.’

The problem with ‘Essential’

The reality is that directives in a time of crisis will have exceptions. People tend to be drawn to those exceptions and search for ‘the line,’ but they need clarity on what they can and cannot do. The only way to do this properly is with examples and clear directives — not guidelines.

'Essential’ is open to interpretation. Arts and craft stores in many US states have stayed open claiming they are essential for children doing schoolwork at home. Food and cleaning supplies are clearly essential, but which food? Are books essential? We can come up with a variety of questions divide and push the ‘essential’ boundary. What this makes clear is how useless the word is. We are asking too much of ‘essential’ as a shorthand.

The word also invokes scarcity when it comes to products. Essential items are in high demand and sellout more quickly. People feel a need to stockpile thus disrupting supply chains and the more you emphasize the essential nature of these products the faster they go.

Empty shelves at grocery store

This is the shelf of cleaning supplies at my local store. The sign tells shoppers that they are limited to two of each item. So what happens? Everyone takes two of each item and they sold out on the day they put up those signs.

An item that is not essential for all may be necessary for some.

The BBC reported on confusion at stores as one woman tried to by compost.

While in the shop she asked for some compost as she has her own vegetable patch, but was told by a staff member they couldn't sell it as it was "non-essential".
"I said, 'Why can I buy a chair for the garden and a gnome for my garden but compost is non-essential?' They couldn't give me an answer. It's ridiculous.
"It's the one thing that's useful, if you grow your own veg you don't need to buy it.
"I left very confused and slightly annoyed as to why it wasn't essential."

Maybe now isn’t the best time to tend your rose bushes (or maybe it is?), but essential guidance doesn’t account for what may be necessary for some. Growing vegetables should clearly be encouraged.

Flip it on it’s head

A communication tactic that can help ease the burden on single words or categories is to use outcome-based communication. That means you talk about the result and use common sense to get back to the what is necessary to achieve that result.

In coronavirus messaging terms this means telling people things they can do at home or while safely physical distancing.

  • Grow a vegetable garden — garden supplies;
  • School activities virtually and at home — books and arts and crafts supplies;
  • Exercise — go out of home once a day while maintaining physical distance;
  • Feed household — shop for groceries, pick up food from restaurants, food delivery;
  • Get healthcare — go to hospital, doctor or pharmacy

Outcome-based messaging is useful in situations where the threat is not imminent (think nuclear fallout) and individuals and businesses can make informed decisions on fringe cases.

The time for ‘Essential’

The word essential does have a place in public health and safety communication. That is in emergencies where people need what is essential to stay alive. This is appropriate for natural disasters, conflict and certainly some infectious disease situations.

An argument can be made that at least in certain locations people should only be leaving home at essential times for what is truly essential. Your definition of essential will surely change if there is nuclear fallout or immediately following a tsunami. Essential denotes survival, not supplies for a school project or take-out food.

We have argued that public communication often has to give way to popularity over technical accuracy in explaining why ‘coronavirus’ should be used rather than ‘COVID-19’ in most situations. The problem in this context is that there will be a time for truly essential directives. Using it as a blanket term now removes space for escalation. Officials will find themselves having to need more specifics to get the severity of the situation across and the need to stay home.

The last word

Save ‘essential’ for when it truly is and use ‘necessary’ as a substitute. Use categories to define what is necessary and take advantage of outcome-based messaging to help people understand what should stay open and their own responsibilities.