Incendiary Headlines: How Brands Can Keep COVID-19 Messaging From Fanning a Dangerous Flame

By Asia Hunt


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate and information rapidly circulates online around the crisis, incendiary headlines have exploded onto our newsfeeds, resulting in mixed messaging, confusion, and most dangerously — major panic. With the spread of misinformation and online scare tactics, we’ve entered into a growing economy of fear — and brands, as primary communicators in our digital ecosystem, can lend a hand in diffusing this fear.

Over the past few months, this pandemic has led us to broach the ultimate information overload. The uncertainty of the virus has thrown our lives, jobs, and families completely off-kilter. In response to this disorientation, many of us have been tempted to circulate as much news and information online as we can in an effort to understand and come to terms with our current reality. But with this great influx of news comes great responsibility. And, as several reports have recently made abundantly clear, not all news and messaging around the virus is created equal. 

Already, Facebook and Instagram have made a pledge to take a harder stand against misinformation around COVID-19. Twitter released new guidelines for brands urging them to speak more clearly about the virus. Even TikTok, land of viral dances (no pun intended) and quixotic content has pledged to work with health authorities to promote accurate information in times of crisis. These brands are taking action because they know first-hand how dangerous misinformation can be. False facts or unclear language leads to more confusion, and at a certain point — the point we are at now — serves only to obfuscate our understanding of the current crisis, breaking down our natural defenses and inherent ability to discern fact from fiction.

But the responsibility can’t just end with social media. Brands in conversation with their audiences about COVID-19 have a responsibility to fight this onslaught of gratuitous messaging and quell the spread of unclear and misinformation. They must recognize that audiences only have a limited capacity of information they can digest. In brands’ haste to grab attention, top social shares and jump onto the COVID-19 PR spike, they need to be asking themselves: Is this necessary? Is this meaningful? Is this kind? Take a hard look at the content, and see if its constructively adding to the conversation, or if it’s coming off as self-promotional clutter.  Because when words and products are rashly thrown at audiences without caution, measure, or compassion, we are left to decipher even more chaos, with few truthful way-finders to help us wade through the sludge of uninformed and gratuitously alarmist information. 

It is now more important than ever for brands to be transparent and concise in their messaging. They need to be explicit and almost pedantically clear. Helpful, not promotional — using their expertise as communicators to aid in dispelling misinformation and inspiring people into action — even if it isn’t necessarily around their brand. For example, translating the new words and phrases we’re being introduced to daily, favoring messaging like “#StayHome” and “Keep 6 feet apart” over terminology like “Shelter-in-place” and “Social Distancing” to keep confusion and unclear language at bay. Brands must also make sure the conversations they are having online right now are relevant to their audiences and their audiences’ current emotional needs. Endless emails “checking in” don’t serve to reassure, but rather contribute to the clutter and information buildup we are presented with daily. Instead, stay sensitive and true to the brand’s core purpose, do not try to pander to this epidemic by spewing out information for information’s sake. 

Above all, be considerate, mindful and realistic about a brand’s role in this crisis and the capacity of information audiences can absorb. We must work together as brands and creative partners to clear the clutter, keep us safe, inform the public, and extinguish the flame.