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Promote Action: Insights and Ideas from the CDC’s Crisis Communications Handbook

The CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual was created for communicators at government agencies, but it offers scientific insights and ideas anyone can use for effective communication. Nonprofits and foundations are trusted institutions in our society, and all of the individuals who are part of or connected to your organizations can help the effort by spreading useful messages, counter harmful ones, and encourage beneficial behaviors. 

Our Mission: Promote Productive Action

“Effective communication during a crisis is not an attempt at mass mental therapy, nor is it a magic potion that fixes all problems. Nonetheless, to reduce the psychological impact of a crisis, the public should feel empowered to take actions that will reduce their risk of harm.” CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual

Notice the emphasis on action. The primary purpose of communication at this time is to motivate people to adopt behaviors that stop the spread of the virus. Without good information and guidance, some will take counter-productive actions in a crisis, so our mission is to promote productive action.

Stopping the spread remains a challenge. You can help the public health experts encourage social isolation and educate people about social distancing, which may become more difficult as time wears on and people grow weary of it. 

You can help counter misinformation—and disinformation—that makes it harder. You can help address a psychological dynamic that played out on beaches packed with college students on spring break: the tendency to resist expert advice that limits our freedoms, and do the exact opposite.

The harms of this pandemic are both physical and psychological, such as the stress of sickness, social isolation, and financial insecurity. Some communities are facing the additional stress of stigma, stereotyping and blame for the pandemic. 

Nonprofit and foundation leaders and communicators can share information and encourage action to address all of these. We can also offer hope—and support people’s aspirations to be their best selves in the face of this challenge. 

Below, you’ll find insights and ideas based on the CDC’s communication manual, meant to inspire your own creative thinking. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a sampling from more than 400 pages of guidance based on expert experience and communications science.

Starting with Science: Motivation 101

“For someone to move to action, (they) must see a personal benefit to taking the action and believe the action can be accomplished.”


“Seeing or hearing that others are taking actions…can be a powerful social influence.” 


“The more socially desirable and easily undertaken a recommended action is, the more likely that it will be accepted.”CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication manual

The insights in the CDC’s manual are based on social science research and best practices in crisis communications. Below are selected tips for messaging and tactics to encourage productive action. (Many of these are second nature to talented communicators, but they bear repeating.)

Keep messages super simple. When under stress, people can’t process complex ideas or information. 

Use consistent messages. In a crisis, people actively seek to confirm information from multiple sources. It’s important to consistently repeat messages from credible public health leaders. 

State the benefits of taking action. It might seem obvious, but it’s critical to clearly state the benefits of a specific action to the individual—as well as their loved ones and their community.

Promote simple actions. People are discouraged by complexity. They need to see that the action is straightforward.

Share stories of people taking action. Ultimately, this is the most powerful form of motivation. People are much more likely to take actions that we see others taking.

Promoting Productive Action    

Communicators can help socialize productive actions at the scale necessary to beat the pandemic, by equipping and engaging every individual in your organization, on your lists, and in your social networks to spread messages and stories about productive action. Below are ideas for creating a steady stream of accurate information and motivating content that promotes specific, productive actions. 

Communicators can help beat the virus by sharing accurate information and productive action. If there’s a time when good ideas can catch on, this is it: Tens of millions of people are tuned into the same topic, feel a personal stake in it, and have a genuine mutual interest in taking actions that benefit themselves, their loved ones, and their society.

Because of the power of “social proof”—our tendency to follow the crowd and do things we see others doing—sharing examples of people taking productive action is a powerful way to encourage others to follow suit. You can mobilize your leaders and influencers in your networks to take specific action, document it, share the content, and ask others to pass it on. 

There’s a lot that needs to be done to address the pandemic and its myriad effects. As inspiration for content to share or initiatives to replicate in your community, below are a few examples of productive action for protecting public health and helping people who are losing income. 

Stop the spread of the virus 

The CDC encourages everyone to send people to its COVID-19 page, Know How To Protect Yourself. The title speaks to an insight for motivating people to take action: They must see themselves reflected in the message. Communications for a general audience that begin with a focus on the most at-risk groups does not accomplish this—and may actually encourage those who aren’t in those groups to believe “it’s not my problem.”  

Get Personal Protective Equipment to medical professionals

 #GetUsPPE is an effort by people on the front lines of the COVID pandemic to address the critical shortage of masks, gloves, and other protective clothing that keeps them safe. The website keeps it simple by offering four straightforward actions: Request PPE. Give PPE. Make PPE. Donate Money. To be motivated to act, people must first believe they are capable of taking the action. Keeping it simple is key: If you confuse them, you lose them. 

Help people cope with social isolation

Creative efforts are underway to help people cope with the stress of social isolation. A good example of making action easy and fun is the #stayinthegame challenge created by Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird and a basketball training app called Home Court AI. Like the famously viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it encourages people to challenge each other to a dribbling contest to “#stayinthegame and #stopthespread.” Gamifying an action in this way is a powerful path to socializing it. 

Support small businesses

@smallbusinessbigonfluence is an Instagram account that makes it easy for influencers with a following on the network to promote small businesses hurting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their followers can buy items online or purchase gift cards to use later. This approach can be replicated across many different industries—nationally and locally—in which influencers shape purchasing decisions and behaviors.   

Send money to people who are laid off

People in many cities have launched “virtual tip jars,” which are simply Google Sheets listing the names of bartenders, servers, hair stylists, and other service workers, along with their personal Venmo, CashApp, or PayPal accounts. Crucially, this makes it easy for people to search for their favorite restaurants, salons, and shops, and immediately send cash directly via their existing financial apps. At a global level, GiveDirectly is a nonprofit that enables people to send cash directly to people living in extreme poverty around the world, as well as those impacted by the pandemic in the U.S.

Persuading the Reluctant

Promoting productive action addresses a key communications objective in the CDC manual, which is to “encourage broad-based support and cooperation with response and recovery efforts.” To achieve the broadest base of support, we have to “correct misunderstandings, rumors, or unclear facts.” Social proof and influence are key to countering these harmful dynamics, because people turn to figures they trust and identify with.

Amplify cultural influencers

Some people resist doing their part to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus, like the spring breakers who crowded Florida beaches despite experts’ pleas to avoid large gatherings. (People who don’t follow the recommendations of public health experts are being called #covidiots on Twitter). Behavioral scientists say that when people feel that their freedoms are threatened, they may do the opposite of what they’re told to do by experts and authority figures.

“(W)hen someone tells you how to behave, you feel your liberty threatened and ‘lash out’ not only by ignoring the advice but by leaning into behavior that goes against what is being suggested,” writes behavioral economist Syon Bhanot in an insightful article in Behavioral Scientist

He suggests that communicators can help by sharing content from cultural influencers to show that complying with public health directives is not just the smart thing to do, but a cool thing to do. You can do this by amplifying influencers who reach into different communities. For example, Don’t Go Out, a saucy music video posted on YouTube by a drag queen named Victoria deVille, implores “party people” to stay home—and not “be seen spreading COVID-19.”

Amplify the experts 

The CDC’s communications manual notes that scientists and medical professionals are the most trusted messengers in public health crises. However, a recent cultural trend in the U.S. is to dismiss experts and their expertise. It’s part of a political narrative that educated people are elitists who look down on everyone else; ignoring them feels like rebelling against an aloof elite. 

Countering this narrative, a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger hanging out in his kitchen with a pair of pet ponies got more than 13 million views on his Twitter feed. He called on his followers to “Listen to the experts, ignore the morons.”

If you have questions or need help with strategic communications, feel free to email Hattaway Communications:

If you’d like to learn more about Aspirational Communication, check out our Achieve Great Things podcast and blog.


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