Coronavirus – Communicating to Children in a Crisis

By Kate O'Neill

When asked what his message to the children of America would be in relation to the global pandemic that is currently impacting lives and livelihoods everywhere, US president Donald Trump said:

“I would say that they have a duty to sit back, watch, behave, wash their hands, stay in the apartment with mom and dad ... and just learn from it," he continued. "Young people have been tremendous. Some of them are very happy not to go to school. They should just sit back and be very proud of our country. Ultimately we are doing it for them."

Suffice to say that these communications echo that of a bygone era when children were to be seen and not heard. While the president is to be commended for his use of simple language, there is very little in this message to help children understand the current environment, allay their fears or offer them a chance to do something positive or proactive. It is little more than an instruction to sit on the sidelines.

Across all sectors, communication is playing a key role in keeping citizens, customers, employees, suppliers and partners informed in the midst of such anxiety and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. But there is one particular stakeholder group that is ultimately the most important of all in the current environment - our children and young people.

Children are often overlooked when it comes to national conversations and major events, a case in point being the instruction from President Trump. However, it is heartening to see many examples of inspirational communications being directed towards our children about Coronavirus to help them understand the pandemic and address the anxiety that they too are experiencing. In many cases, there is something to be learned from such communications.

A myriad of books, posters and educational tools, as well as broadcast addresses and letters, have been developed for young people that embody the golden principles of communications; relevancy, honesty, simplicity and storytelling.

Crucially, in addition to these one-way communications, children have also been afforded opportunities to engage in the conversation and have been included in the call to action, offering them a voice as a key stakeholder and a chance to contribute. This kind of meaningful engagement is important when communicating about a complicated or stressful situation – be it with a child or an adult.

As communicators, it is often difficult to avoid using company jargon or grand sweeping statements when speaking to different audiences, but there are lessons to be learned from this recent initiative by An Garda Síochana, whereby Chief Superintendent Finbarr Murphey wrote directly to the children of the Gardaí who work in his district. He asks them to design artwork to guide parents at the station how best to wash their hands to keep them safe.

The letter, which uses simple, respectful language, opens with a message about the child’s parent. As there is nothing more important to a young child than their mum or dad. This makes it immediately relevant and personal to them. For the many businesses who often start a letter to employees or other stakeholders talking about themselves or the company – try to instead make the opening sentence as relevant and personal to an individual as possible.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden has set an example for all political representatives to follow in her approach to communicating with this particular audience and went over and above by hosting a special press conference recently where kids got the chance to be the reporters. Not only did this afford children the opportunity to do what they do best – ask questions – it was a great example of two-way communications, from the bottom up.

The New Zealand Prime Minister is to be also commended for her assurance to children that the Easter Bunny was in fact delivering Easter eggs at the weekend, while also thinking of the children out there who may not receive a visit.

Her language and tone of voice, as well as her encouragement to children to support each other by drawing pictures of Easter eggs to include in their window, is a fantastic example of inclusive communications, which took into account the many circumstances children may be facing out there.

The above are just a couple of snapshots of lessons we can learn about effective stakeholder communications – consider your audience, use the appropriate language, be as relevant and as personal as you can and adopt a two-way approach where possible.

It is safe to say that, as we emerge from this crisis, our children will remember this period long into adulthood and the examples of imaginative communications above will perhaps encourage trust and continued engagement in public communications as they grow up to become the voters of tomorrow 

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