Nigeria CDC Builds on Media Training Successes

When the national act establishing the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control was signed in November 2018, its inaugural Director Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu wrote on the nascent public health institute’s website that “Science without political engagement remains in its ivory tower.” Public health practitioners, he explained, have no choice but to participate in public discourse and the political process if they hope to be effective at preventing and preparing for outbreaks of infectious diseases.

NCDC quickly began bolstering its ability to communicate and engage the Nigerian public. In August 2019, NCDC partnered with IANPHI with funding from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC) and Tony Blair Institute to create a media relations workshop for staff. The objective was to increase NCDC staff’s skill- and comfort-levels with communicating with the Nigerian public through news media. The facilitators selected a real infectious disease (Lassa fever) and put NCDC’s program staff through a series of confrontational mock interviews for print, radio and TV about a fictional outbreak.

A short seven months after the training in Abuja concluded, WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. NCDC’s staff, like their peers at public health institutes around the world, were tasked not only with leading a scientific response, but with guiding the public through that response. NCDC’s 2019 communications training cohort made more than 500 media appearances in 2020 alone.

To build on this important institutional capability and reduce the risk of burning out critical staff members who are balancing programmatic and communications duties, NCDC, IANPHI and U.S. CDC partnered on a second media relations and training session in 2022. Objectives for the training included:

  •     Understanding how function news media functions and what constitutes a good news story
  •     Learning how to effectively communicate key messages
  •     Managing encounters with news media
  •     Handling difficult questions
  •     Avoiding common interview “traps”
  •     Preparing for media opportunities

The second cohort’s sessions took place in May and were led by Stanley Bentu, a broadcast journalist and media consultant who also participated in the 2019 sessions. Eight senior NCDC officers participated in the four-day training in Abuja, which was followed by a one-day refresher session for 2019 participants.

In post-training interviews, participants said they know more about media strategy and technology, and are better at delivering key messages, even on short notice. 

“On the few occasions I’d spoken to the press, I would be extremely nervous and uncertain,” said Dr. Luka-Lawal Rejoice, assistant director and the head of incident command for the National COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre. “With the training I feel more in control. I understand how to prepare for interviews and ensure my key messages are communicated regardless of the interview style.”

“It was definitely helpful to get acquainted with best practices,” said Dr. Fahad Mohammad, public information officer member of the National Monkeypox Emergency Operations Centre. “My first interview after the training was definitely positive. I was much more composed than my previous interviews.”

Overall Changes

Coinciding with the first spokesperson training, NCDC’s communications teams created and have continued to refine internal procedures for managing media requests. For example, all interview requests are now received and documented by the media relations team. Requests are reviewed to determine the best response and suitable spokesperson from the trained experts available. The Director General or Head of Communications must approve staff interview requests. Actively managing its relationships with the news media allows NCDC to ensure compliance with protocols while improving the accuracy and effectiveness of its communications.

NCDC’s communications team also mounted a proactive communications campaign to fight misinformation. Using social media listening tools, the team developed a plan to have NCDC communications training cohorts deliver radio, television and print media messages encouraging individual and collective behavioral changes such as encouraging the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Through its Prevention Programme and Knowledge Management team, Nigeria CDC plans to keep investing in its strategic communications capacity with additional media training, field photography training and knowledge management.

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