Public Information and Communications

Communication is fundamental in health and wellness care; providing accurate and timely information is critical when public health and safety are concerned. How and when information is relayed is as important as what information is relayed. Timing is critical when there is a threat of disease outbreak or other emergent health issue. To reach the many different community members, information should be disseminated in as many ways as possible, using all communication channels and multiple formats. This broadens the information net to reach the entire campus community and its external stakeholders, including parents, the general public, and media outlets.

Information should be easy to comprehend and jargon-free. Consider translating the information into various languages or sharing a link to an online translator such as Google Translate. Information should be available in digital formats as well as written formats. Written format is especially important for those without electronic proficiency or ready access to a computer and the internet or data-enabled mobile device.

Wellness and Prevention Messaging

Wellness and prevention information should be easily accessible, prominent, and widely available and include sexual health, general wellness concepts, chronic disease management, seasonal illness, self-care, and other health topics that are pertinent to your student population, demographics, and needs.

Digital media is essential in communicating wellness and prevention messages. Your website is a prime place for consumers to access this information. Information posted there must be rigorously reviewed and current to avoid the risk of complaints, confusion, credibility loss, or liability. You can also post appropriate health and wellness information on your social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. You should have a designated staff member (and back-up staff) who regularly monitors your social media accounts and who can reach out to appropriate staff to respond to or correct any erroneous information that may be posted on social media by others.

Written information such as flyers and pamphlets (such as those available from ACHA) should be readily available in your health and wellness center, and you may wish to distribute them throughout campus dining halls and/or dorms as appropriate and feasible. If your campus hosts health or wellness fairs for students and/or faculty and staff, your staff should participate. Peer educators can also disseminate topic-specific information during events and/or visitation to classrooms. Video monitors that play health/wellness information videos or stream such information may also be useful.

Develop a communications plan to provide a strategy and a structure to prioritize your campaigns, messaging, and resources. A good communications plan includes a timeline, a budget, the predominant activity and messages, and ample opportunities to assess and revise. Incorporate the campus calendar and national health and wellness awareness observances into your communication plan.

Active Disease Messaging

In the event of active disease, you want to ensure that information is as accurate as possible and is shared expeditiously. The campus community should be regularly updated as information is available. Typically, these diseases are infectious or communicable.

Information to be shared includes but is not limited to:

  • Identity of disease (e.g., norovirus, flu, meningococcal disease)
  • Signs and symptoms
  • Mechanism of spread
  • Student response if exposed
  • Available treatment options and how to obtain them
  • Ways to protect individuals from exposure to the causative agent (e.g., cover your cough, handwashing, staying at home)

Emerging Public Health Threat Messaging

Providing the general public with information about disease outbreak or other public health threats may assist in containing the event, especially if there are known cases in the off-campus student population. The health center director (or equivalent) should consider designating an individual(s) to assume responsibility for disseminating information to the media, if campus policy permits.

Before providing information to the media, consult with your campus’s communications/media office to ensure that your messaging aligns. Depending on the scale of the threat, central communications may provide advice to the health center or coordinate all media requests.

At a minimum, health center personnel should prepare pertinent disease-specific information to be shared with the public. This could be in the form of a succinct FAQ page, which will also be useful in keeping your own staff informed.

In all circumstances, patient confidentiality must be maintained.

Information relevant to the specific public health event should be prominently displayed on your website’s homepage; do not bury it under a subheading. Your website may be the first place people look when word spreads that there is a public health-related event. Immediately update your website as relevant information becomes available.

You may find that your center’s social media platforms become very busy during emergent public health events. Be sure that these platforms are monitored, and when required, provide a timely response to any false or misleading information posted by others.

Depending on the urgency of the situation, you may also wish to utilize campus messaging systems that reach the entire campus population, including faculty, staff, and non-residential students. This may include text messages and mass email.

During an emerging public health threat scenario, it is likely that local or regional public health will already be involved. As the campus expert on health, the health center is the primary liaison between public health and the campus. Conference calls and/or face-to-face meetings with campus constituents will be needed, especially if this is a highly communicable disease or the outbreak is widespread. This should include departments such as campus housing and dining, sorority and fraternity life, public safety/campus police, and housekeeping.

More information may be found in the Communication section on page 2 of the ACHA Guidelines, Emergency Planning Guidelines for Campus Health Services: An All-Hazards Approach.

Crisis Response Messaging

Crisis response messaging is time-sensitive. The CDC addresses this in its Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) manual and offers training through webinars, on-line courses, and in-person sessions. The training covers a wide range of topics, including an introduction to CERC, how to develop audience specific messaging, and how to develop a crisis communication plan. This material, in addition to the article on crisis response, can serve as guidelines for effective messaging during responses to a crisis on your campus.