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World Health Organization Tags UCF Team for Global Health Crisis Communication

The next time there’s an international health crisis, such as an Ebola outbreak or spread of the Zika virus, communication with the general public should be better, thanks to the recommendations of a UCF research team.

Professor Tim Sellnow and associate professors Ann Miller and Lindsay Neuberger from the Nicholson School of Communication conducted research to come up with best practices for communicating during a global health threat. The World Health Organization sponsored the research and will use the team’s recommendations to guide its efforts. It is the first time a UCF team has conducted research for the international health organization responsible for building a healthier future for people all over the world.

“Globalization has essentially evaporated borders,” Sellnow said. “This was an ideal project with global impact. By offering communication guidelines, not only can we help doctors and scientists stay focused on a health crisis, but we can also help avoid a lot of misinformation among the general public.”

The fundamental finding was that emergency risk-communication training should include a focus on coordinating federal, state, local and community agencies and personnel. And the training should include an emphasis on dealing with the media, including specifically the need for contingency press statements and talking points to ensure all agencies involved are sharing consistent information, and are presented in a manner that is sensitive to the needs and comprehension level of the audience.

The particular challenge in a global-health crisis is the lack of existing networks established within and among the organizations impacted. Establishing these relationships in advance of a crisis would result in more efficient outreach, the team concluded.

Miller said the WHO should be commended for its trailblazing mentality of encouraging research into the critical role communication plays in any emergency.

The team reviewed more than 6,720 published articles related to communications during health crises. Graduate and undergraduate students assisted in the process. The systemic evidence review is traditionally applied in medicine, but not so much in the social sciences, Miller said.

The team’s expertise positioned UCF to be the ideal institution to handle such a big endeavor.

Sellnow specializes in crisis communications and led the project in collaboration with Miller, who specializes in global-health communication, and Neuberger, whose specialty is health-communication campaigns.

The team presented the recommendations to the WHO during a guideline-development group meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in February and its findings were published in the Journal of Health Communication [1] in June.