While the corona crisis puts a lot of projects and businesses on hold, it offers new opportunities for crisis communication researchers. There are no final research results yet, but the current Swedish news coverage seems to be more influenced by insecurities than during other crises, according to Marina Ghersetti, a researcher in the field of crisis communication at the University of Gothenburg.
When a crisis arrives, all your other work has to be put aside to give the crisis your full focus.
This is true to Marina Ghersetti, senior lecturer at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. In her earlier research projects, she has evaluated the news coverage of several other pandemics, the swine flu being the most recent one.
Ghersetti points out that the Covid-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity for the research field of crisis communication.
– I think that this crisis will make people realise the value of communicating correctly. I believe that it will be very visible when comparing the communication actions in different countries.
– The virus has spread globally and, theoretically, it is equally merciless everywhere, but some countries have succeeded in limiting the spread better than others. Why? Of course, medical actions play a great part here, but since the population’s behaviour is crucial for limiting the spread, communication actions are extremely important. The only way to change how people behave is to communicate with them, says Ghersetti.
Working as a researcher in an ongoing crisis
The crisis caused by the coronavirus stands out in several ways, according to Ghersetti. One factor differentiating it from other crises is the way in which it has affected the everyday life of most people, Ghersetti herself included. Like so many others, she works from home now instead of going to her office.
– There are always a lot of meetings, when for example preparing a survey, but now we have had to do all of them digitally. It has resulted in a number of Zoom hours, but I think it has been working well, she says.
– Of course, there are some challenges in this situation, like depending on technology to work and not being able to meet your colleagues in the same way. When working from home, the breaks are not the same either. Now I just take a 15-minute lunch break and then I’m back at the computer again.
Ghersetti is involved in a project called Crisis Communication and Social Trust in a Multi-Public Society, which aims to study how social trust among different societal groups affects crisis communication, and how crisis communication affects public trust, both in the short and long term.
Ghersetti explains that a large part of working with the project means studying a crisis while it is ongoing.
– The project started with the terror attack in Stockholm in the fall of 2017. Since then we have waited for something else to happen and when this crisis came, we had to drop everything else and work really hard to, for example, send out new surveys to the public fast. It means a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it.
During an ongoing crisis, the media will clearly request comments from researchers in the crisis communication field more than usual. Although Ghersetti has been contacted by several journalists, she says that it has not affected her work that much. What can be frustrating, she says, is when you are not yet able to give the answers the media asks for.
– A lot of the times when I get contacted by media, they want information about the news coverage – which are our results that aren’t finished until much later. When we finally do have the results, the interest of the media has usually passed. That can be frustrating, but it is something that I am used to.
Insecurities in the Swedish news coverage
While emphasising the fact that she does not have any finished results yet, Ghersetti shares some of her impressions of the news coverage of the coronavirus in Sweden so far.
– Something that has taken a lot of space in the media is what we are supposed to do to protect ourselves from the virus, both individually and as a society. Another big topic is the discussion about who should decide what we are supposed to do, is it the authorities or the politicians? On the one hand, the politicians have received a lot of criticism about not taking enough action. On the other hand, they are praised for trusting and following the advice from the Public Health Agency.
During the swine flu pandemic, the news coverage was much more unified, according to Ghersetti. At that time, the media sent out a clear message about what should be done, which was mass vaccination. Since mass vaccination also was advocated by the government and the authorities, it became a clear, unified message that was communicated practically unopposed, leading to 60 per cent of the population getting vaccinated, according to Ghersetti. She says that the current situation shows different signs.
The project started with the terror attack in Stockholm in the fall of 2017. Since then we have waited for something else to happen.
– The news coverage of the coronavirus is influenced by a great insecurity about what is happening, why it is happening, how long it will last and what should be done to eliminate or limit the spread of the virus.
One of the reasons for the news coverage of the coronavirus being more varied than during other crises could be that journalists are comparing the Swedish strategy with international strategies this time, according to Ghersetti.
She says that the journalists did not do the same during the swine flu, even though other countries acted differently then as well. She also points out that there are more disagreements within Sweden about how to act during this crisis. Consequently, the media has a more varied discussion to report on, looking both nationally and internationally.
Since the crisis is still ongoing, Ghersetti says that it is difficult to analyse whether the crisis communication in Sweden has been successful or not.
– As long as we don’t have an end point, we can’t say who did right and who did wrong. But something we can see so far is that people are social distancing: they work from home, they didn’t celebrate Easter together and so on. So, it seems like these messages have reached out to a large part of the population. However, with crisis communication, rule number one is uniformity, which is difficult to achieve during this crisis since the experts don’t all agree with each other. But as said, until this is over, we cannot fully evaluate if the communication was successful or not.
Future conference topic
Looking at the future, Ghersetti believes that a lot of research about the coronavirus will be conducted in the field of crisis communication.
Her own work focuses on the Swedish crisis communication and news coverage, but she is convinced of the fact that there will be research going on all over the Nordic region about the communication during the corona crisis.
– I’ve been interviewed by Norwegian media and they talked about research going on in Norway right now, and I believe it is the same in the other countries. It would surprise me if this won’t be a topic on Nordic conferences in the future.
Studies on the pandemic
Here are some academic initiatives and projects related to the coronavirus outbreak in the Nordic countries:
Crisis Communication and Social Trust in a Multi-Public Society studies the interrelationship between crisis communication and social trust among different societal groups. The project is funded by the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency and it is conducted at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg.
Pandemic rhetoric: Risk communication in a changing media landscape investigates how the changing media landscape, where people rely on social media for their daily news, affects risk and crisis communication. The project is funded by the SAMRISK programme at the Norwegian Research Council and it is a cooperation between the University of Oslo, the University of Bergen, the University of Roskilde and the University of Örebro.
HOPE – How Democracies Cope with Covid19: A Data-Driven Approach studies how democracies react and cope as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, and the effects caused by that behaviour. The project investigates the interrelationship between different factors, including the decisions of media and social media landscapes and citizens’ behaviour and well-being. The Carlsberg Foundation funds the project and it is conducted by researchers from Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark.
The LILIEMA programme is a multilingual educational programme that now provides information in local languages about protection against the coronavirus in Senegal. The programme is set up by researchers at the University of Helsinki.
Photos: Jens Lindström (test tube), Johan Wingborg (portrait of Marina Ghersetti), Marina Ghersetti (home office)