Ebola crisis: how UK civil servants kept the public informed and tackled scaremongering
DfID’s Angela Balakrishnan tells Max Goldbart how cross-government working and innovative content helped to keep the public informed at the height of the Ebola outbreak
In December 2013, what was to become one of most damaging global epidemics of our time broke out in Guinea, West Africa. The Ebola outbreak lasted for two years, and resulted in significant loss of life worldwide.
In the UK, a speedy cross-departmental response was required. One of many civil servants brought in to handle the communications reaction to the outbreak was Angela Balakrishnan, deputy head of news in the Department for International Development (DfID).
Balakrishnan, an ex-economics reporter for the Guardian, worked as part of the press team alongside the strategic communications and creative content teams. The whole effort was a masterclass in cross-departmental handling, involving officials from DfID, the Department of Health and Ministry of Defence and numerous other agencies. “We established a system of communications planning grids and messaging materials to ensure consistency and coordination with other departments,” Balakrishnan tells CSW.
Balakrishnan and her DfID colleagues’ roles involved making sure the public was as well-informed as possible about the disease, how it was being handled, and what the UK was doing to help. The team was innovative, and helped produce good quality content to keep the public up to date.
“We were always aware of negative coverage. We needed the support of the public and also the support of local media in Sierra Leone,” she says.
One of the tactics employed to manage the flow of information between the UK and the main Ebola treatment hub of Freetown, Sierra Leone, was the deployment of what Balakrishnan refers to as “rolling press officers” in both cities. Every few weeks, a new member of the department would be sent out to the press office in Freetown to deal with comms “on the ground”.
Balakrishnan’s turn came in November 2014. “There wasn’t an official handover with the person before you. We had a press office phone with all the key contacts, but that was it: you had to hit the ground running. It really tested you as a comms professional,” she says.
This system meant the team could develop quality content, keeping the public informed and interested over the course of the outbreak. One particular example was Medics behind the masks, an immersive piece created by DfID, which unmasked the doctors and nurses risking their lives to help beat Ebola in Sierra Leone.
This strategy helped stem the tide of disinformation, so that when two British nurses were flown back to the UK having contracted the disease, stories that appeared in the press were truthful and didn’t scaremonger.
Balakrishnan says: “When [nurse] Pauline Cafferkey came back from Sierra Leone there was huge concern for her, but the public reaction wasn’t one of fear and panic. I think that’s because of all the comms we had done.”
Balakrishnan sees the campaign as one of the crowning moments of her career. As she puts it: “It was probably one of those things that you’re not going to get to work on again. It was a really busy time for us. I think we all thrived off being able to show the leadership of the UK government.”
The Ebola Campaign won the Communication Award at 2015’s Civil Service Awards. Click here to find out about this year’s awards
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