Dialog, Not Decree, is Key to Good Science Communication: Lessons from COVID-19
February 22, 2023
Until just a few years ago, scientists and health policy experts, whether in public health or private scientific enterprise, spoke with nearly absolute authority. Their positions, delivered in a straightforward manner rooted firmly in scientific fact, helped guide the public and advise government, society, and business on health issues and solutions. They were seldom challenged.
As we know, the COVID-19 pandemic changed many things. It transformed and accelerated how we develop vaccines, but it also upended society. It necessitated changes in our behavior, made existing health inequities more clearly apparent, and also revealed deep rifts in our society regarding the acceptance of both scientific fact and the benefits of medicine to humanity. Whether or not a vaccine was proven safe and effective through exhaustive trials or a public health measure was statistically shown to work didn’t matter. Facts were politicized; objective truth became malleable and elusive.
This left scientists and health policy experts scrambling. In the face of contradictory messages and lack of coordinated response from elected officials, scientists were seen to lose their authority, seemingly overnight. Trust in scientists and health experts broke down around political ideology; left-leaning Americans retained a high degree of trust in these experts (62%), while right-leaning Americans had a much lower one (20%).
This divide was compounded by confusion resulting from a glut of self-anointed experts emerging from the worlds of TV commentary, social media, political advocacy, and even music and sports. When people sought information they could trust, they were bombarded with mixed messages, pseudo-science, and conspiracy theories to the extent that many no longer knew who or what to believe.
Though they didn’t cause this crisis in public confidence, health and science communicators are partly to blame for the trajectory it took and for the impact this crisis is having beyond COVID-19. With their wisdom unchallenged for years, they became complacent, sticking to an old but previously successful playbook without acknowledging that the game has fundamentally and irrevocably changed. And, science’s historic view of public engagement – that it is an opportunity to persuade people rather than converse with them, has created distance between the people and scientists that the pandemic has only exacerbated. Now that the pandemic is waning in much of the world, so is the impetus to address the failures of health policy communication, but that must change.
Health policy experts and scientists need to think about the lessons of COVID-19 and embrace effective solutions in order to deal with current public health issues and be ready for future challenges.
Meet people where they are. The principles of communicating quickly, accurately, and with transparency apply to communicating on any platform, but there are a number of challenges unique to social media that science and health communicators failed to consider in many cases. Too often, we saw a one-size-fits-all approach applied to social posts, with pronouncements aimed at “general audiences,” but, the idea of a monolithic general audience is an outmoded concept. Micro-communication – speaking directly to distinct and diverse audiences, is an effective approach, more likely to result in a productive conversation and galvanize audiences to action, helping them to move from where they are to where they can best take care of themselves and their communities.
Social media provides ample opportunity for sparking the real conversations with patients which must take place if we are to bridge the age-old divide between scientists and the public. Sciences’ communications failures during COVID-19 are forcing a re-think of the value of engaging the public, especially people with different perspectives. UCLA’s Dr. Amander Clark, quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, believes that scientists’ long-held view of public engagement as an opportunity to get the populace to agree with them needs to change: “We need to start listening to the public about what they want. We need to make this more of a two-way street.” Social media can be a key conduit for beginning the give-and-take interactions that will lead to real dialogue.
Convene communications summits. To establish agreed-upon messages and recommendations that are in-line with national guidance on particular health challenges, communications summits are a foundational step. However, these are not new. In my time consulting with National Wildlife Refuges on challenges related to habitat loss, we attended regular meetings in which the development of effective, consistent messages to aid in conservation work were the goal. In health communications, which arguably has a more immediate impact on human life, these meetings take on special urgency, and it is even more important that we are all working from the same playbook.
Communicate quickly, accurately and transparently. The CDC’s Principles of Crisis and Risk Communication succinctly lays out the six fundamentals of a successful infectious disease outbreak communication program: be first, be accurate, be credible, express empathy, show respect, and promote action. However, not everyone, the CDC included, was able to use these best practices consistently in the heat of the COVID-19 crisis.
Being fast, accurate, and authoritative in communications is critical. The public is more apt to believe those who share information first. They are willing to accept that authorities do not have all the answers if communicators are transparent about it and show they are taking steps to fill information gaps.
Empathy and respect are also critically important; these are areas in which many communicators failed during the pandemic. One study confirmed what seemed clearly observable in many places: communication challenges included an overly paternalistic communication approach, stigmatization of some communities, and difficulties promoting action and mobilization in others. Key to addressing these faults is developing tailored communications that resonate with specific communities, as well as a sincere effort to collaborate on communication to inspire community-based action.
Call out misinformation decisively. As a follow-on to communicating quickly and with transparency, it’s critical that science and public health communicators jump on misinformation with decisive, accurate myth-busting. Adding to the difficulty of dealing with misinformation is that elected officials were often the ones who were getting it wrong — even when they had access to and had been briefed on the most up-to-date scientific and public health information. It’s essential for health and science communicators to collaborate closely with officials to coordinate messages and improve collective ability to convey accurate, timely health advice and guidance. Lives depend on it.
Leverage trusted local health workers as communicators. Gallup’s annual poll of the most-trusted professions brings forth nearly the same result, year after year, with the 2023 poll once again naming nurses as the most trusted figures (79%), with medical doctors (62%) and pharmacists (58%) now ranking second and third. After that, trust drops off significantly, with congresspeople and telemarketers — perhaps unsurprisingly — at the bottom (about 1% each).
In disseminating public health information, communicators would be wise to enlist these health professionals, primarily nurses, particularly in local communities where personal connections further enhance public trust. Several case studies show public health communication programs like New York City’s, which enlisted nurses and doctors as primary communicators, returned high vaccination rates.
While there are several critically important issues that must be addressed in health policy in the year to come, the most fundamental need is bringing clarity and purpose back to our collective communication efforts. But, in conveying messages, medical scientists will be that much more effective if they drop the didactic approaches of the past, actually connecting with members of the public, decreasing the distance between science and the people, and fostering a more collaborative relationship. By accomplishing this, we can cut through the partisan agendas and the noise of the outspoken fringe. Once more, we’ll effectively address the health challenges that we face and will face in the years to come.