Columns July/Aug 2020

Communication During Public Health Crises

By Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of society. From health care to education to shopping, all of us are changing our routines to address a public health crisis. This process has been difficult because it involves moving to new situations where we have little experience.

These shifts have caused confusion, panic, and challenges to the social order. Managing them requires effective communication to address the new contexts where we now interact. Technical communicators can help with these changes by creating content to guide behavior during public health challenges.

Contexts and Cognition

Most of us operate on “autopilot” when performing regular tasks in familiar spaces. This is because we use mental models called scripts to guide our behavior in these locations.

Repeatedly doing the same thing in the same place allows our brains to establish a mental model that directs our actions on a subconscious level. The first several times we perform a process, it requires most of our attention as we dedicate conscious brain activity to learning that new thing. The more we perform the process, the more ingrained it becomes, until we create a mental model for it. At that point, our brains can process that activity subconsciously, and we no longer need to “think about” doing it.

These processes are often connected to the setting where we perform an activity. The moment we recognize our location, our subconscious accesses a script that tells us what to do there based on previous experiences. We then slide into that routine without needing to think about it—something that frees our conscious mind to do other things in that location.

COVID-19 Context Challenges

Much of the COVID-19 discord involves scripts for behavior. Medical facilities, for example, are now often strained beyond capacity, meaning health-care providers cannot rely on scripts for providing care. Similarly, patients cannot use scripts for “visit emergency room” to access health-care systems. In these cases, individuals must focus all their attention on what to do in new situations. The resulting demand on the brain’s processing ability can cause feelings of confusion, frustration, and panic.

These situations are not new; they have occurred during previous public health threats. Then, as now, the inability to rely on mental models led to fear and disruption. Addressing challenges then, now, and in the future involves understanding how mental models affect social interactions, identifying where such models break down, and providing content that explains what to do in these situations. As experts in developing informational content, technical communicators are well positioned to help mitigate many problems during public health crises.

Content, Cognition, and Care

COVID-19 has taught us that public health crises can disrupt activities across different areas. Similar disruptions have occurred during past public health threats, and such patterns can provide insights on the content needed to address current and future threats from pandemics.

Technical communicators can help address such situations by providing scripts via informational content that tells individuals how to perform activities during a crisis. Core content to develop includes the following:

  • Instructions for identifying infection: Overcrowding in health-care contexts often reflects individuals flocking to medical facilities to determine if they have a condition. Instructions for assessing if one has a condition, and what to do if symptoms are present, can reduce strains on health-care systems.
  • Strategies for shopping smartly: Panic related to procuring food can cause problems during pandemics. Addressing this situation involves content explaining how to create household meal plans, shop for those plans, and purchase groceries in ways that minimize trips to the store.
  • Protocols for probing postings: Misinformation contributes to disruption during public health threats. Instructions explaining how to assess sources of information for accuracy and report fictitious content to remove it from circulation can help mitigate such problems.
  • Instructions on indirect interaction: Social distancing is only successful if individuals have alternative ways to engage in interactions. Instructions for shifting certain activities—from workplace interactions to educational instruction to monitoring family when they are away—can facilitate such processes.

Such materials apply to the COVID-19 situation, and to future public health threats, by providing scripts to guide interactions and avoid confusion over what to do—and how and when to do it—in different situations. The dynamics involved will vary from location to location and group to group. For this reason, technical communicators need to identify who will need these materials and develop content these audiences can easily understand and use.


Public health challenges are a part of human history. The better we understand them, the more effectively we can address potential disruptions. An application of scripts can help technical communicators create content that quells panic and provides guidance during uncertain times. The ideas presented here can assist with developing content to address the current COVID-19 context, as well as to plan for future public health challenges.



This column provides information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. Columnist Kirk St.Amant is the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication and a member of the Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science (CBERS) at Louisiana Tech University. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Technical Communication with the University of Limerick in Ireland and a Guest Professor of Usability Studies with Southeast University in China. He contributes two columns (“The Cognitive Communicator” and the new “Health and Medical Communication”) to STC’s Intercom magazine and serves on Intercom’s Editorial Board. Contact him at to submit or pitch a column idea.

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