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Covid-19: Communication in a crisis of a new magnitude and complexity

News: May 27, 2020

Covid-19 is a dominating topic in the news, in our social media feeds and in many of our interpersonal conversations. It has a profound impact on our everyday life – it changes the way we study, work, engage with our families and friends.

In this scholarly discussion in cooperation with the Institute of Media and Communication Science at the German Technische Universität Ilmenau as well as the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMG) at the University of Gothenburg, Andreas Schwarz and Bengt Johansson explore Covid-19 from the perspective of crisis communication research. They reflect on the particular challenges of pandemics, the special nature of Covid-19, ongoing research as well the role of scholars in mitigating this pandemic.

Video discussion on University of Gothenburg Play

Challenges of transnational crises

andreas schwarzPandemics are transnational crises. As Andreas Schwarz (photo) explains with regard to Covid-19.
– This virus does not care about political interests, about national boundaries, about media systems that are highly nationalized – still. This [transnational crisis] is confronted with nation states and governments that are trying to focus their interests very much on the nation, very much on their maintenance of power, which leads them to taking bad decisions emphasizing national interests and blaming, scapegoating international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the European Union (EU). Political interests are often overriding the actual rational decision about what should we do, what should we communicate, he says.

Adding to this, Bengt Johansson (photo below) points to the special nature of Covid-19.
– The Covid-19 pandemic is what some scholars would call a mega crisis, it is not just more of everything, it is also something else. A lot of things are unknown. The Covid-19 pandemic will change what we thought we knew about crisis communication. We have not had this scope or magnitude of a crisis, at least globally, he says.

Covid-19 combines a number of challenges for crisis communication practitioners: In addition to the sheer scope of the crisis, the novelty of the virus adds a layer of complexity. It requires crisis communicators to adapt and change communication as the crisis unfolds and they gather new information about the virus. Covid-19 is not ‘only’ a transnational health crisis, but “has triggered a lot of follow-up crises for the economy, for small and medium-sized businesses, for the world of sports, for non-profit organizations, [which] lead to a conflict of interest on a huge scale in all countries that are so much affected right now”, argues Andreas Schwarz.

Advancing risk and crisis communication research

Scholars in risk and crisis communication have produced a rich body of research comprising theories, models and empirically grounded recommendations on how to communicate in a crisis. But there is a catch: “We have to be cautious of that research, because we have an overabundance of studies and findings that concentrate very much on the United States or Western and Central Europe. We are lacking substantially comparative studies. There are certain parts in the world where we have never tested these models or theories”, comments Andreas Schwarz on the current state of research. He adds that the complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the follow-up crises it triggers are not covered by the existing theories and models, “because we are usually focused on single crises or lower-scale crises”.
bengt johansson
Both discussion participants emphasize the importance of comparative research for studying Covid-19. As Bengt Johansson argues: “We have the same crisis, the same pandemic and we can then compare how the communication actually works in different political systems, risk cultures and so on”.

In the context of the large-scale project ‘Crisis Communication and Societal Trust in a Multi-public Society’, Bengt and his colleague at JMG currently investigate interpersonal and institutional trust, trust in the news media as well as views on crisis communication and crisis preparedness in the Swedish society. A large-N panel study with thousands of participants allows the researchers to analyze how trust as well as views crisis communication and crisis preparedness change over time. Moreover, the researchers also focus on respondents from Bergsjön and Hjällbo, two immigrant-dense areas in Gothenburg, to “see those people who are seldom heard in crisis communication and in surveys”.

Bengt Johansson provides a summary of first results.
– What we have found out thus far is that people are actually supporting the government, supporting the crisis communication strategy, they are supporting the authorities, but they are also supporting the news media. There is a strong ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect , almost covering everything. We will see how long it stays up there and if it decreases, as the crisis changes its shape and intensity.

Academic contributions to mitigating transnational crises

What can the community of crisis communication scholars contribute to mitigating the global Covid-19 pandemic? To Andreas Schwarz, the role of scholars is not only to study the crisis and publish findings academically, but also to “translate our findings, develop applicable models, go proactively to the institutions […], use our knowledge to engage more strongly in trainings, in workshops in interdisciplinary work to prepare certain institutions better.”

Both Bengt and Andreas emphasize the importance of crisis preparedness and resilience. Andreas Schwarz observed “that – especially on the lower levels, think about schools, elementary schools, private entrepreneurs, small businesses, shop owners – they are really, really struggling, not just with the crisis itself, but also with the question: “How should we communicate with our employees, our pupils, etc.?”. To him, it is a key task of crisis communication scholars to develop “reasonable recommendations that are affordable and easy to realize” to help “these smaller organization become more resilient”.



Discussion Participants

Andreas Schwarz leads the Group for Research in Public Relations and Communication of Technology at the Institute of Media and Communication Science at Technische Universität Ilmenau in Germany. He is Managing Director of the International Research Group on Crisis Communication as well as the Founding Chair of the Crisis Communication Section at ECREA (2011 to 2018). Together with Matthew C. Seeger and Claudia Auer, he edited the Handbook of International Crisis Communication Research.
Read more about Andreas’ work:
Andreas at the Institute of Media and Communication Science
The International Research Group on Crisis Communication

Bengt Johansson is a professor at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg. He conducts research in the fields of political communication as well as crisis communication and leads the ‘Crisis Communication and Societal Trust in a Multi-public Society’
Read more about Bengt’s work:
Bengt at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication
Bengt’s blog

Discussion chair

The discussion is chaired by Alice Srugies, Director of the programme Master in Communication at the Department of Applied IT.


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