case study

Positioning the WHO Regional Office for Africa as An Authority on Health


The Challenge 

The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm. In a short period of time, it became a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Rumors and misinformation were rife, and people everywhere were desperate for real-time updates and information. As the health arm of the United Nations in Africa, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) was quickly overwhelmed with requests for information and interviews from journalists from all over the world who wanted to find out how the continent was coping with the pandemic.  

At the same time, while interest in COVID-19 information was high, journalists started to pay less and less attention to other health concerns affecting the region, from tuberculosis to malaria through to non-communicable diseases. The challenge for WHO AFRO then was two-fold: on the one hand, they needed to respond to requests for information about COVID-19 to ensure that rumors did not fill the vacuum, while at the same time, they needed to find a way to continue to disseminate information about other important health concerns affecting African populations.  

Our Approach 

At the peak of the pandemic, WHO AFRO started hosting weekly media briefings to provide journalists with up-to-date information on the state of COVID-19 in the region, discuss its impact on other health concerns, and communicate about strategies being put in place to contain the spread of the virus and protect the health of the continent’s population. Burness partnered with WHO AFRO to support close to two dozen press briefings, including several that focused on non-COVID-19 health topics affecting the region. We collaborated with WHO AFRO to invite relevant national, regional and international journalists to cover the press briefings and publish stories on the updates they received. We kept our media lists regularly updated and pitched journalists that indicated interest in COVID-19 and other region-specific health issues that arose amid the virus.  

Results and Impact 

Through these briefings, timely health updates were available at national, regional and international levels. Here are a few highlights: 

  • In October 2021, we worked with WHO AFRO to put together a panel of experts to discuss the low levels of testing on the African continent, leading to an underestimation of the number of people with COVID-19. The story was covered by the Agence France-Presse (French), Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Globe and Mail, New York Times and more.   
  • In April 2022, we helped WHO AFRO garner attention for a large-scale polio vaccination campaign in Malawi and its neighboring countries following the disease’s outbreak in the region. The story was featured in Al Jazeera, BBC and STAT, among many other outlets. We also helped place an op-ed by WHO AFRO’s Regional Director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti in 30 outlets across the continent.  
  • In October 22, as vaccines reached the African continent and the number of COVID-19 cases continued to decline, WHO AFRO continued to provide information to encourage the population to remain vigilant. We invited journalists to a press briefing about the dropping vaccination rates in the region. This story was covered by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press, among others.  
  • In November 2022, WHO AFRO hosted a briefing to discuss climate-related health emergencies in Africa. We pitched journalists covering both these topics — climate and health — and received interest from all over the world. Telesur (Venezuela), Sputnik International (Russia) and Agencia EFE (Spain) were among the outlets that covered this story. 

The above-mentioned are just a few of the press briefings we supported WHO AFRO with, advising on strategy, pitching journalists and often writing a press release. These briefings kept the world informed about health concerns in the region. 

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