Lessons from the pandemic: TU Ilmenau and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment on COVID crisis communication

Visualisierung eines Covid-19-Virus CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS
The Covid-19 virus

The TU Ilmenau and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment have just presented the results of a large-scale international research project on risk and crisis communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the findings, scientists, for example, were much more likely to be rated as credible sources in their statements than national governments. The findings provide valuable insights into the communication strategies of governments and authorities, their perception by the population and the assessment by journalism and social media in Europe and the USA. They will now be used to draw conclusions for dealing with future crises. The three-year study was funded by the politically independent German Research Foundation with a total of 1.8 million euros.

For the research project DECIPHER - "Deciphering the 'pandemic public': government communication, (social) media discourses and citizen reactions to Covid-19 in Europe and the USA" - analyzed COVID crisis communication in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Hundreds of high-ranking government officials and citizens were interviewed, more than 6,000 press releases and over 11,000 online news articles were analyzed, and millions of social media posts were evaluated using computer-aided methods.

The research team from TU Ilmenau and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment was interdisciplinary: it combined expertise and methods from communication science, psychology and computer science. Innovative data science methods such as machine learning and network analysis were also used, for example to identify influential networks in the social media surrounding the pandemic.

Analysis results of the reporting in 11,000 articles

Scientists were much more likely to be rated as credible sources than national governments. The media in the UK, US and Sweden rated their governments most negatively compared to the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Spain.

In the countries with the highest number of deaths per 1,000 population, the UK and the US, there was a notable gap in media coverage between the positive assessment of science and the negative assessment of government agencies.

The articles analyzed rarely emphasized the effectiveness of self-protection measures. When they did, vaccination and testing were presented as the most effective measures compared to hygiene measures and lockdowns.

Analysis results of government communication and public engagement on social media (X, formerly Twitter and YouTube)

Far-right and conservative political parties spread significantly more misinformation than other parties. For example, AfD politicians alone were responsible for 92.5 percent of all misinformation in the German Bundestag. This misinformation also generally led to more intense public debate on social media, which can be seen as problematic.

Results of the analysis of interviews with government representatives and press releases

Internal organizational factors have a considerable influence on the success of government communication in crises. Particularly problematic are difficulties in coordination between the various national, regional and local levels of government and the very often lack of evaluation of communication after the crisis.

40 percent of the press releases issued during the COVID-19 pandemic in the seven countries did not contain the content elements that are effective as messages to guide the population in their risk assessment and self-protective behavior during a pandemic.

Analysis results of the interviews with citizens

Trust plays a central role in the evaluation of government communication. This trust is influenced by factors such as the perceived competence and integrity of politicians, the consistency of communication, the admission of mistakes and transparency.

Citizens have a strong need for consistent, coordinated communication between different government institutions. For future crises, respondents suggested the creation of a coordinated communication channel in the form of an app or website that provides important information from the government and related institutions in a standardized way. To increase comprehensibility, the content should be communicated in easy-to-understand language and illustrated with graphics and videos.

Prof. Martin Löffelholz, Director of the International Crisis Communication Research Group and spokesperson for the DECIPHER project at TU Ilmenau, sees the crucial role of trust and transparency in effective crisis communication confirmed by the DECIPHER study: "By understanding these dynamics, we can contribute to improving communication strategies and reporting in future pandemics and thus increase the protection of the population from disease and disinformation." Data is still being collected and analyzed, which should lead to concrete guidelines by the end of the year.