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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter June 6, 2022

An Assessment of Crisis Communication During the Covid-19 Pandemic

  • David A. McEntire EMAIL logo

It is no exaggeration to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on individuals and nations around the world. Everyone is saddened by the appalling number of deaths and the pervasive sickness that resulted from the virus. There is also widespread recognition that the pandemic disrupted societies in significant ways and that emergency, public health and medical personnel demonstrated heroic efforts through their dedicated service to save lives and help the infected recover.

There is less agreement, however, about the value of information that was shared with the public on the part of the United States government and many others who were involved in crisis communication. Many assert that the messages from various leaders and agencies demonstrated the successful application of scientific knowledge. Others are more critical. They argue that “science” was tainted by politics or that the information given to the public about masks and vaccine mandates was a chaotic mess.

While this discussion has been highly contentious, we should remember to express gratitude to everyone who did their best to help us deal with the adverse consequences of Covid-19. At the same time, there is value in stepping back and examining the issue from the standpoint of the disaster and emergency management literature. It is likely that crisis communication during Covid-19 was problematic – at least partially and in various ways.

The disaster research literature has repeatedly demonstrated over several decades that warnings and crisis communication are most effective when messages are clear, consistent, concise, credible, and contain useful recommendations for the public.

The literature reveals that warnings and communications should be simple so that understanding can be enhanced. Our notification of the public should relay a similar message over time if possible and be relatively short in content so that confusion can be avoided. The information provided should come from a trusted source and share helpful advice for those who are receiving the communications.

Unfortunately, there is visible evidence that these standards were not always followed during Covid-19. For instance:

  1. Crisis communication was not always clear. People were told that masks are not needed, that you should wear a mask, that you should wear multiple masks, that most masks don’t work effectively and that you therefore need a special kind of mask. In addition, individuals may have been advised that you don’t need a mask if you are vaccinated and that you need a mask even if you are vaccinated. Furthermore, information was shared about the efficacy of vaccines with differing implications (e.g., they can prevent the disease, they cannot prohibit infection, they can minimize death, they have no side effects, they have some side effects).

  2. Messages were inconsistent. The information shared by two Presidents, congressional representatives, governors, members of both political parties, public health officials, news organizations and talk radio hosts differed in dramatic ways. Messages were distinct and dynamic in content – whether justified or not.

  3. The information was not concise. Because of the lack of clarity and ongoing inconsistency, messages were longer than would be preferred – at least when taken collectively or as a whole.

  4. Credibility was lost. The incorrect or constantly changing information caused people to lose faith in ongoing crisis communications. Citizens wondered what was really accurate or truthful because it seemed that messages would fluctuate on a recurring basis. Various leaders on each side of the political isle failed to follow their own advice about masks (at restaurants, parties, salons, sporting events and other venues) which did not help people believe the serious nature of Covid-19. Some well-known politicians, celebrities and sports stars also refused to take the vaccine and actively opposed the mandate in very visible protests. Consequently, the public did not know who to trust during Covid-19.

  5. Finally, recommendations were weak and questionable. Each of the problems mentioned above resulted in a situation where various members of society began to wonder if masks and vaccines were needed or helpful. The diverse difficulties listed above inadvertently limited the effectiveness of the public health measures that were proposed to assist and protect the public.

The point of these details is not to bash any specific individual or institution. Political leaders, public health officials and many others generally tried to respond to an obviously challenging situation to the best of their ability. Nor is this argument a call to prohibit discussion and debate about what should be done when these types of public health emergencies occur. It is instead a reminder that we already have many of the answers about warnings and crisis communications in terms of goals and process. We must therefore apply the knowledge we have already gained through decades of academic research. The public deserves our best efforts to warn and communicate effectively when emergencies and disasters occur.

Corresponding author: Professor, David A. McEntire, PhD, SFHEA, Department of Emergency Services, Center for National Security Studies, Utah Valley University, 3131 Mike Jense Parkway 84601 Provo, UT, USA, E-mail:

Received: 2022-03-22
Accepted: 2022-03-27
Published Online: 2022-06-06

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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