Communications in times of pandemic – dealing with a tricky substance

There is no doubt that Covid-19 presents us with fundamental challenges – and not just medical ones. The virus also confronts us with a “gigantic test of civilizatory values,” as the Tübingen-based media theorist Bernhard Pörksen has aptly remarked. And for weeks now, our lives have been determined by the attempt – at the interface of hope and fear, control and trust, science and the mundane – to pass this test. Indeed, under the impact of this new challenge, which has become a watershed for the post-war generation, dividing its life into a time before and after, habits are being subjected to a stress test, things that were previously inconceivable are being imposed, and completely new approaches are being tried out – also in communications management.

For the communications expert, it is no surprise that the question of how best to convey the measures that were necessary in public and business life – with encroachments on personal liberty that were at times drastic, but also with considerable demands on solidarity and flexibility – cropped up very early in the debate about how to deal with the pandemic. When, at the end of March, the German Ethics Council published its ad hoc recommendations for overcoming the crisis, it was only natural that they should include a demand for a “sound strategy for transparent and regular communication.” The sociologist Rudolf Stichweh puts this success factor into a social context when he speaks of mass media becoming a “system-relevant functional system” in the Covid-19 crisis (one might ask, why not earlier?). In a pandemic, having the final word on what things mean is in the truest sense existential, or, to quote Mona Jaeger’s apposite comment in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper: “In the coronavirus crisis, language gain is also a power gain.”

However, there is also a downside to the significance of communications in times of pandemic. With impact so great and the effort of posting one’s own position so low, there is a dramatic jump in the standards that apply to choice of words and integrity of action. The coronavirus has not only engendered a language of its own, with comparatively harmless epithets such as covidiot and coronaspeck (see the Economist article “Do you speak corona?”), but also, as the WHO has warned, an entire infodemic of misleading formulations, false reports, and conspiracy theories. In the initial phase of combating this crisis, moreover, it was sad to see how virologists – clearly overwhelmed by the sudden surge in media interest in their discipline and their personal lives – maneuvered themselves communicatively into positions that carried all-too-real risks of a fall. The unease felt by the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, who suddenly found himself portrayed on t-shirts, is just one example.

In times of great uncertainty and maximum risk, communication is a very efficient substance, but often also a very tricky one. It’s not just a question of dose (not too little, but not too much either), but also of purity and side-effects. Peter Sloterdijk’s admonishment to journalists applies equally well to PR and advertising professionals: “Anyone involved in mass communications is part of a system geared to spreading panic, since only panic can lead us to the yearning core of other subjects.” By going on to distinguish negatively charged (fear) and positively charged panic (desire), he gives us a clue to the kind of stimulus communications need to provide in times of coronavirus: for solidarity and trust, but without restricting freedom and individual responsibility.

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