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Global Health: What communications lessons can we learn from COVID-19?

From malaria to HIV, for decades communications has played a vital role in raising awareness of diseases and advocating for action to end suffering.

Looking back to March 2020 and the beginning of you know what, the role of effective communications could not have been more important. What is coronavirus? How does it spread? What are the symptoms? The questions were endless, and it seemed like every organisation around the world was providing guidance and advice on how to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Since then, global health has captured the world’s attention, with endless media coverage, international co-operation and a huge increase in public awareness of matters such as immunisation and disease transmission. So, for the diseases that remain – what lessons can we take from the COVID-19 communications response to ensure that they too get the attention and action they so desperately need?

Education is a powerful tool

COVID-19 laid bare that people’s behaviours and willingness to follow public health advice remain one of the most powerful tools for combatting poor health. Global health organisations must therefore invest in educational campaigns that create clear understanding of how to prevent and treat diseases and illnesses.

With the world going virtual, we’ve seen bodies from the World Health Organization to UNICEF embracing the power of digital, delivering impactful awareness campaigns using social media and accelerating the process of digital transformation in the voluntary sector. At Grayling, we supported Senegalese advocacy tank Speak Up Africa to develop its Stay Safe Africa campaign, to empower communities and individuals to take simple and proven preventative measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Using uncomplicated and locally sensitive assets and messages that reached over 9 million people on social media, we were able to spread the word during the early stages of the pandemic, when misinformation and confusion was rife.

Tell human stories 

Quite simply, it’s in our nature as human beings to be interested in what happens to others. It was therefore unsurprising that our news feeds were filled with emotive human-interest stories about the detrimental impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had had on people around the world.

When it comes to telling the global health story, it is essential that people are at the heart of the narrative, stirring emotion in the reader and tapping into natural feelings of curiosity or empathy. Not only does this attract attention and pull on the heart strings, but it delivers results too. There has been strong evidence that real stories really do increase fundraising income, with the persuasion science book The small BIG showing that when fundraising teams shared stories about the people impacted, rather than just the statistics, they secured more than twice the number of telephone donations.

Tailoring approaches for the local context

While many health issues cross global borders, the local context is certainly not the same. This became abundantly clear at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with only 3 in 5 people across the world having access to basic handwashing facilities, despite governments including France and the UK calling washing your hands a “simple” preventative step. It is therefore essential that the language used in awareness campaigns is sensitive to the local context and limitations.

And it’s not just what you say, but how you say it too. When adapting your communications approach, it’s also important to consider the best way to reach your target audiences. India and Brazil are WhatsApp’s biggest markets, and 97% of internet users in Kenya use the messaging service too, so it’s vital to pinpoint the most effective way of sharing messages and information for different countries.


There has never been a more critical time to ensure that the global health community is shouting loudly and clearly about these important health issues. Whilst we continue to grapple with COVID-19, we cannot afford to divert attention from issues such as cancer and heart disease and so we must work even harder to protect everyone at risk – and that means ramping up communication efforts to ensure global health stays at the top of the political agenda.

Despite the immense challenge, we’ve learnt a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic response and how we can raise all important awareness for other health issues – now it’s time to put those lessons into practice.


Get in touch to find out how Grayling can help you with your global health communications!

By Jessica Smart, Senior Account Manager in Grayling UK’s Health team.