Spread the Word, Not the Virus: Engaging 36 Million People in the Fight against COVID-19

March 20, 2020


Participants in the Spread the Word, Not the Virus Campaign


Last week began a new chapter in UNDP China’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. We are gradually sending staff back to the office as the situation seems to have improved and the number of new cases in China has declined significantly. The final shipment of medical supplies we procured from abroad are arriving and will be handed over to our government partners. We also brought to a close to our online campaign ”Spread the Word, Not the Virus.”

Yet as we begin to take the first steps towards returning to normalcy, we are fully cognizant that the situation elsewhere is still getting worse, as the number of cases in many countries continues to climb. It is a challenging time. While governments implement their procedures, it is also imperative that people understand how to protect themselves. This is key to mitigating the spread and keeping the population healthy; it takes every individual to undertake behavioral change.

With this in mind, we want to share our experiences and reflections on designing and running a social media campaign to encourage the populace to adhere to World Health Organization (WHO) viral protection practices – particularly to ensure that the disadvantaged have access to timely and accurate information.


"The planning, design and implementation needs to be agile – the situation is always evolving; design thinking is key: prototype your campaign approaches and adjust them along the way."



From the outset, we knew this campaign would be different from our previous ones – this was a new challenge that we had not faced before. It was urgent, and we needed to act fast. But where shall we begin? As it happened, one of our staff was in her hometown, a Dai village (one of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups). In China, much like other countries, the population is diverse and speaks a variety of local dialects or languages. There, our colleague saw firsthand the issue of the elderly having limited access to accurate (or understandable) information. Looking deeper into the problem, we again and again found that accessible information was indeed a challenge – either due to a lack of digital literacy, or due to a lack of information in local languages and dialects. This was it; we narrowed our focus, in line with UNDP’s mandate, to leave no one behind.

Approach and process: prototyping a campaign

As public health was our priority, we knew we needed to act quickly. Oftentimes we spend weeks or even months to strategize and design large-scale campaigns. This time, we didn’t have that luxury – instead we opted to prototype and test our ideas in batches, to see what worked and what didn’t, and adjust as needed. This allowed us to roll out the campaign and modify it as the situation evolved. 

But first we needed our messaging. 

One UN – interagency cooperation

As WHO is the leading agency in the response efforts, we reached out to run the idea with them: helping people in need requires information that is accessible and trustworthy, and that is where our campaign came in – a convergence of UNDP’s mandate to leave no one behind and WHO’s fight for facts to prevail over the “infodemic” of fake news.

WHO was fully on board to provide information kits on proper protection procedures, and we packaged them in a way that was creative and accessible to the public – helping to amplify WHO’s message to a wider audience. This in itself was a challenge: we had to ensure to not deviate at all from WHO’s content, as it is accurate and essential information, yet how could we make it more accessible for the masses online?

Youth engagement and participation


Students of Yunan Nationalities University sharing information on best health practices in ethnic minority languages.


The answer came with one of our prototypes with Yunnan Nationalities University, where the majority of students are from various ethnic minority groups. We provided them with messaging from WHO, with the guidance to choose which ones they felt their communities needed to hear the most, and create videos in their own dialects and languages to carry the message of “Spread the Word, Not the Virus”.

Within 24 hours, students had generated the first batch of video messages, covering 10 languages including Tibetan, Yi, Dai, and Uighur language. We quickly put them together to launch our first milestone video which went viral on Chinese weibo.

Almost overnight, more university students became involved, who then shared with their friends and neighbors, and the number of active participants started to swell. We hit our first 5 million views.

Over time, we saw the campaign become a social movement led by youth. An online community was born. By volunteering their time and creativity to help their families and communities, the campaign gave the youth the ability to be part of something meaningful despite being physically isolated at home. One touching example was a video by a young man in Shanghai, who taught his grandmother how to put on a mask in Shanghainese.


A participant from Shanghai teaching his grandmother how to wear a mask.


As the virus started spreading across borders to many other countries, a second stage of the campaign spontaneously began, marked by many non-Chinese volunteers contributing submissions in Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Romanian and Icelandic among others. Our online community now included international netizens.

Leveraging partnerships and KOLs

While our campaign was built on Weibo, we leveraged other partners with their own platforms, like LinkedIn and Tiktok, partnerships we have been building for years through previous campaigns and engagements with our office and representatives, to bring more people into the growing pool of participants.

The campaign reached its first 10 million views when A-list artists (many of them UN Goodwill Ambassadors including Lang Lang, Michelle Yeoh and Zhou Xun among others) and other online celebrities sharing stories and videos encouraging everyone to act in solidarity, to properly wear masks and wash hands, maintain social distancing, and to help seniors and other vulnerable groups who might not be receiving the facts.

To continue building upon the momentum, we also engaged mainstream media. Through TV interviewspress releasesOp-Eds, as well as their own coverage of our campaign, they helped to widen the audience, reinforce the messaging, and amplify our united voice.

Bringing in Tech


A.I. Anchor Xiao Qing, introducing highlights from the Spread the Word, Not the Virus campaign.


As the number of languages grew, it became apparent that we still had some gaps in local dialects. Another of our partners had an innovative solution: an AI generated news anchor named Xiao Qing who can ‘speak’ 25 languages. This gave the campaign an innovative appeal and had a particular resonance with the younger generation. For more on this and other tech used in the response to COVID-19, see Dev Ramiah’s blog here.

Challenges and lessons learned

No campaign goes exactly as planned, especially in an emergency environment. We need to remain agile, and adapt and learn as we go. Here are a few areas where we learned some key lessons:


Information on personal infection prevention measures were announced through loudspeaker in some villages.



  • The planning, design and implementation needs to be agile – the situation is always evolving; design thinking is key: prototype your campaign approaches and adjust them along the way.
  • Some of our target audience, particularly the disadvantaged and elderly have no access to digital services. How can we engage them with an online campaign?  While our participants did their best to create content that was accessible, this is not something an online campaign can entirely deliver. One solution from our community came in the form of some rural villages in China, after being inspired by our initiative, actually taking the concept offline and using loudspeakers to broadcast precaution information from the campaign so that elderly villagers with no digital access could understand how to protect themselves.
  • Working with multiple partners can sometimes entail multiple layers of approval procedures and efficiency loss; however, it does help us innovate and reach a wider audience. It is key to find a balance between leveraging partner resources without compromising agility and efficiency.

Spread the Word, Not the Virus wrap-up video


However, in the end the campaign was an overwhelming success. By creating an online community that was engaged, actively generating their own content and sharing valuable and timely information, we were able to reach 36 million views spanning 50 languages and dialects  – all thanks to our online volunteers and the partners who made it possible.

We hope that by being transparent, and sharing our successes, but also frictions, others will be inspired to find their own way to galvanize netizens in the pursuit of leaving no one behind.

We are all in this fight together.  


Authored by Ms. Zhang Wei, Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP China,  Paul Young, International Communications Officer, ZHAO Yue, Innovation and Communications Officer