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Crisis Communications In Developing Nations: Lessons From The Ebola Outbreak

Increasingly global companies are looking to emerging markets as rapid growth opportunities (isn’t ’emerging markets’ synonymous for developing countries?). Some, like those in West Africa affected by the deadly Ebola virus, have significant populations living in remote areas where standard communications tools don’t work as well, and bridging cultures is challenging. For health care providers, many rural, tribal residents are more frightened of physicians and their treatments than of the disease itself. Fear and rumors are the main drivers of what passes for information about “a global emergency” according to the World Health Organization.

What can communicators who work in developing countries learn from the mixed messages proliferating about the Ebola crisis? Pulitzer prize winning author and former NPR Health Correspondent Laurie Garrett suggested the following to Harvard Business Review:

  • Western style of doing a media campaign . . . is not what is needed on the ground.
  • What’s needed is really direct communication that begins by identifying key community leaders village-by-village, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.
  • Who are the influence-makers? Who are the individuals that everyone else follows and obeys for one reason or another, whether they are religious, political, gangsters, whoever they are, and winning them over step by tedious step.

The same article quotes York University’s Raymond Mar promoting storytelling in such cases: “The more that people are transported into the world of the narrative, the more they feel immersed in the story, the more likely they are to change their beliefs to be more consistent with those expressed in the world of the narrative.”

We agree:

  • Effective storytelling often “sticks” best with non-technical audiences and cuts across cultural taboos.
  • Visual representations of data and complex concepts that are relevant to target audiences can bring information and messages to life.
  • Your “truth” is not their truth. A “Western” story may not always play well in other markets and cultures. Some cultures understand analogies; others don’t. In the West, one spokesperson can often resonate with an entire nation; in developing countries, you may need multiple spokespersons.