Institutional communication within pandemic: bioethical aspects

17 March 2022


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The opinion focuses on institutional communication, examining, albeit briefly, scientific communication by experts and mass media communication, which inevitably interfaces with institutional communication.

In general, the opinion highlights that this is communication during emergency situations, in which the interaction between those who inform and those who receive the information has the fundamental role of promoting conscious risk management.

With regard to communication by scientific experts, the opinion, highlighting the difficulties encountered especially in the early stages of the epidemic, emphasises the need for good communication practices, based on evidence, in which the dynamic and constantly evolving nature of scientific knowledge is clearly explained. The importance of "proximity communication" with general practitioners is also highlighted.

Various aspects in mass media communication have been focused on: the profound changes generated by the process of digitisation, its acceleration during the pandemic, the associated process of disintermediation, and lastly the strong drive towards the phenomenon of the infodemic, i.e., towards the information chaos produced by an irrepressible and uncontrollable proliferation of news, comparable to the spread of a virus. A phenomenon that risks undermining trust in scientific and institutional communication, hindering the proper management of the pandemic.

In this scenario, institutional communication plays a fundamental role, understood as being the communication whereby institutions (the national government, local governments, and related institutions, such as the ISS- National Institute of Health, AGENAS-the National Agency for Regional Healthcare Services, AIFA-the Italian Medicines Agency and other agencies) provide an account of their activities, in order to guarantee citizens' right to information, promote dialogue and two-way discussion.

The ICB emphasises that the exclusive purpose of institutional communication is the protection and promotion of the interests of society as a whole, according to a non-partial approach, and that in order to be effective and promote citizens' trust in institutions, it must be guided by the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder engagement.  All this entails the obligation not to hide the complexity of the pandemic phenomenon behind forced simplifications but, conversely, to illustrate the complexity as such, and adequately communicate also the uncertainty relating to scientific data and their interpretation, as well as the reasons for the choices taken by the institutions.

It must also be a communication in which the institutions speak with one consistent voice, justifying where necessary differences in communications on the various measures taken or to be taken, in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

Institutional communication of this kind cannot be improvised. Similarly, it is not possible to improvise the scientific communication of the pandemic or mass media communication that acts as a link between one and the other. To combat the possible crisis of trust, that is transversal to all three areas, it is necessary to reconstruct the mediation process between those who inform and those who are informed, clarifying the competencies of those who provide information, their responsibilities, their complying with ethical principles and deontological rules. The concluding reflections of the opinion also move in this direction, highlighting some points for preparing optimal institutional communication in pandemic emergency situations.

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