If there’s anything that spreads faster than the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, it’s the pariah of fake news.

A cursory glance online reveals an endless gallery of rumors, conflicting information and conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic’s origins as well as baseless claims that seek to undercut health authorities’ outreach efforts pertaining to how widespread or deadly the outbreak is.

Dubious health sites recommend drinking hot water with lemon to kill the virus, or suggest that a cattle vaccine could be effective in treating coronavirus patients. Conspiracy sites claim COVID-19 was intentionally created in a lab, or that research groups funded by Bill Gates patented the virus’ genome so they could profit from future vaccines. Government-linked social media accounts in China and Russia have for months waged coronavirus-related misinformation campaigns in an attempt to spread propaganda and sow political discord. Fake news surrounding the outbreak has been so prevalent that fact-checking site Snopes has witnessed a 50 percent increase in traffic as viewers flock to the site to verify claims surrounding the virus, according to a Business Insider report.

It seems, in addition to the pandemic, that we’re simultaneously experiencing an information crisis surrounding COVID-19, a phenomenon the World Health Organization in February labeled an “infodemic.” 

People are desperate for information about the virus, but complicating the challenge of treating and educating the public about COVID-19 is the notion that fake news surrounding the pandemic is disseminating faster than our collective ability to stamp it out. Like the virus itself, there are no borders when it comes to how misinformation is spread over social media.

A recent report by Edelman found that the private sector is regarded as one of the most trusted sources in informing the public on the facts surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. One could make the case that PR professionals, in particular, can play a vital role in working with health experts for the purpose of disseminating accurate information that combats misinformation surrounding the outbreak, without further contributing to our current climate of hysteria.

David Kyne, CEO of healthcare, medical marketing and communications agency Evoke KYNE, told O’Dwyer’s that communicators should provide a united pushback against this “infodemic,” and the industry can do this, in part, by lending best practices advice while reaching key audiences that matter most.

David KyneDavid Kyne

Kyne suggested three areas where the PR sector is uniquely poised to provide impact in the information battle around COVID-19.

The first involves the work agencies do for their clients, which, in his agency’s case, includes companies working on COVID-19-related vaccines and diagnostics as well as healthcare clients with patients who are at increased risk for contracting the virus. COVID-19 has effectively created a new reality, and brands need to adjust their messages accordingly. Agencies should tailor COVID-19 messages on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind how stakeholders are being specifically adversely affected by the virus. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.

Then there’s what agencies can do for their employees. Agency leaders have a responsibility, Kyne said, to communicate to their teams who are looking for guidance amid the COVID-19 crisis and to support them by providing emotional and mental support in addition to actual health support.

“People want to hear from their corporate leaders, which goes to the fact that this is an economic issue as well as a health issue,” Kyne said. “Leadership of any organization is really important, and I see a big responsibility to be on top of what my team is saying.”

Finally, Kyne advised remaining close to what governments and world health authorities are saying and to support and amplify what those messages are. This is a challenge, given the outbreak’s situation remains different in every country, and is constantly changing.

Arguably, it’s somewhat confusing that health leaders have been inconsistent in their guidance on several key issues surrounding the virus. For instance, the WHO has said it isn’t necessary for the public to wear masks when leaving home. Now, the CDC is weighing a potential shift in its stance on that issue, possibly recommending the use of masks to reduce community transmission. And now, the Trump administration is revising its guidance on that directive as well.

Kyne said these sharp pivots are expected in a crisis that’s evolving so rapidly. Ultimately, it means that, as an industry, communicators bear a responsibility to have an ear to the ground and remain in-tune with how this virus is changing day by day.

“I think if there’s a gap we’re looking to bridge here, it’s the difference between these big, broad messages and getting behaviors to change,” Kyne said. “As communicators, we can provide the bridge between health information and behavior change. The specific messages about washing your hands for 20 seconds or wearing a mask are examples of behavior-change messaging, and a big part of behavior change is understanding who you’re speaking to. The message has to come from the right person.”