In this first of a two-part episode, we look at how well the nation's COVID-19 health messaging is being received by the public and delve into some of the barriers and opportunities to building and maintaining public trust. We also examine how well the Crises and Emergency Risk Communication principles have held up under the intense pressures of the COVID-19 response.
Robert L. Jennings
National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC)
Glen Nowak, Ph.D.
Center for Health and Risk Communication
Advertising and Public Relations
University of Georgia
Risk Communication in the Age of COVID-19
HOST: Joining me today is Glen Nowak, a professor of advertising and public relations and director of the Grady College's center for health and risk communication at the university of Georgia. Professor Nowak is the perfect guest to have with us to address today's topic as he not only brings a vast academic background, but also a wealth of knowledge and experience in communications and media relations from his long tenure at the centers for disease control and prevention. Welcome Glen and thank you for joining me today.
GUEST: Thank you. And thank you for the invitation.
HOST: Well, let's jump right into it for more than a year, Public health communicators have been on the front lines of our nation's response to COVID-19. You have had a long career in practicing risk communication, what would you say has been a bright spot in our nation's public health communication efforts and where have there been some challenges?
GUEST: Bright spots are there's been a recognition that when it comes to something like a pandemic, you have to do a lot of communications. It seems obvious, but if you go back 10, 15 years, I think there was always a sense that if there was an infectious disease outbreak or a pandemic, it could be easily managed on a communications front.
It wouldn't involve a lot of commitment of time and resources. And so I think one of the biggest things that we have seen is that public health has recognized that doing communications well takes time. It takes resources. You are going to be in the news. Not only, weekly, but probably many times a day.
And you have to be accessible. The flip side is one of the biggest challenges is that you are involved in communicating about the pandemic 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it is rare that you have those kinds of resources. But I think the other thing that this pandemic has highlighted that has always been there is that there's a lot of attention placed on messages and communications, but to the extent that messages and communications are going to be very good, you also need the guidance and the policies to be well thought out well articulated, and to be able to address the answer to the questions that people have.
HOST: Well, thank you for that. Have public health agencies lost a significant amount of trust during the COVID 19 pandemic? And what would. Be some concrete steps you could take or to build some of that trust back?
GUEST: Trust is both a matter of communications, but also actions. People want to see that you've heard them and that you're listening to them. So I think, you know, one of the first things that public health has to do is, is look at what are some of the actions and steps that we took that really hurt us when it came to establishing and maintaining trust. And what would we do differently and better going forward. Transparency is another key element of building trust. Just recently, the CDC changed its position on face coverings.
For people who are vaccinated. There's a lot of people who said that, you know, while they may have supported that recommendation, they were taken by surprise. So inviting other people to weigh in on the possibilities that you're considering can go a long way toward building trust.
HOST: So this is the first pandemic of its kind in the age of social media and global connectedness. In your opinion, how do we adapt our risk communication principles to a transformed environment?
GUEST: Well with social media, social media is really difficult because one, we use that term social media as if it's one or two, maybe major platforms. When in fact, it's really dozens of platforms, each of which can do different things. So one thing that public health has to be able to do is understand, you know, what are, when we say social media, what do we mean by social media? What platforms are we going to have to learn how to use. It also means that we have to be ready to have our messages appear in multiple places over extended periods of time. And I think that that is sort of a paradigm change for public health. We often like to believe that we put our messages out there once or twice, and then they persist in the environment.
And what social media has taught us is that we have to be out there constantly putting forward our positions, our messages. Basis for our recommendations, because if we don't, people are going to soon forget about them and they're going to be displaced. We also have to monitor the social media world to find out, you know, what are the most common pieces of misinformation and disinformation that are being shared. And then think about how can we best refute and address those. It's going to be difficult.
And it is difficult for government agencies to insert themselves into social media platforms, particularly if they're closed networks. And I think we're going to have to figure out if there are people getting information on closed networks. What other networks can we use to get information out that is going to be more helpful?
HOST: Well, you've touched on it. And, since most of our members and our listeners are working in government communication offices or in government organizations, is government nimble enough to effectively operate in this new information age where misinformation and disinformation is so prevalent? And how do you think they need to transform to meet these threats?
GUEST: I think one of the things, when we look back and try to figure out what are the lessons learned from this pandemic is, is exactly that, how can government agencies be more nimble and what would it take for them to be able to be more nimble when it comes to responding to questions, claims sessions, misinformation. There's a wide range of things that prompts the need for a communications response.
There's also a wide range of platforms and where you can put those messages. So I think when we start thinking about how do we improve going forward, it's going to be, what are the resources? What are the protocols? What are the systems that public health needs to be
able to be successful in this communications environment, where people have a lot of
different places that they can turn to for information.
HOST: So at your university's center for health and risk communication, has there been a
change to what students are now being taught in the wake of this pandemic?
GUEST: Well, there've been a number of things that I know I have done as a result. One is
that I have found that I now teach drawing much much more upon what is happening in the
moment that a lot of the examples, a lot of the lessons learned are drawn from what is
currently going on in the world of public health. And I think it makes it more interesting,
more relevant for the students. I think the other thing I've noticed is that a lot of the
theories that we have, whether there are risks, communications, theories, crisis
communications, theories. We probably need to update them. And we probably also need to
recognize that when it comes to things like infectious disease, pandemics, there are these
simplistic notions that you have a single message or you have a single voice need to be
revisited because I think one of the things that this pandemic has shown is that you're going
to have to have messages for possibly years.
If the pandemic is going to persist and evolve and change and different things are going to
come become relevant, such as vaccines at different moments in time, you're also going to
need multiple voices. And different voices talking to different communities and different
players. And I think, you know, right now, if you look at a lot of the textbooks and a lot of the
risk communications, health communications theories, you see it makes it look like it's really
very simple. You set a couple of communications objectives, you develop a handful of key
messages. You teach one person to be your primary spokesperson and you go forward. And
so I think we, we, we have to recognize it.
We have to be smarter and more sophisticated. And the one thing I also did notice then on
the flip side of that is that a lot of our risk communications principals have stood up pretty
well. When we have been successful and we have seen success it's because people are being
They're acknowledging uncertainty, they're sharing dilemmas, they're reaching out to
community. So I think a lot of the things that are at the foundation of risk communications
and probably even crisis communications still matter and matter a lot.
HOST: Can you share with our listeners how data is now being used in real time by public
health communication professionals to better connect with specific target audiences?
GUEST: Well data. I think one of the things that has happened with this pandemic is there's
been a recognition that if you're going to use data, whether it's interviews from people who
are in your target audience or survey data, you have to be in the field quickly. You have to be
able to turn those, that information into insights, pretty much overnight. And you're going to
have to continually do it.
And so I think what you've seen is that there's been a lot of recognition that you need to talk
to people in the targeted audiences. You need to talk to people in the public. I saw a study
that was published a couple months ago in the new England journal of medicine that was
basically a look at many surveys that have been published. I think it was like 40 surveys have
been published over the span of 10 months. I mean, that is astonishing at the speed at which
that kind of, that amount of information was collected. And that's what we need to be able
to get to do is look at that data and find out what are the different groups that are out there.
How many people are already on board with us, people who aren't on board, what do they
believe in? Where are they getting their information? And so data is really essential and it's
essential. You get it quickly so that we can use it quickly.
HOST: And so finally, I just want to ask you for our listeners out there, that would just want
to glean from your many years of experience in risk communication, what advice would you
give them at this point in the pandemic to help them move forward and to help them in
their professional development?
GUESTl Well, I guess a couple of things. One is what this is highlighted is it's really important
that you have a strong network and that you know how to reach experts. Whether they're
experts in infectious diseases or experts in working with communities or experts in working
with doing risk or health communications. So I think that is one thing that is really essential
as you're going to have to work with other people and the faster you can find those people
and establish relationships with them, that's going to be really critical.
I think, secondly, recognizing that you have to be nimble, you have to be quick, that we all
would like to probably have more time to think and do and write. And what you do is you
have to become really effective and with short deadlines, with recognizing that it's not going
to be perfect, so that you're striving for good and very good, rather than perfect.
You just don't have the time to do perfect. And then, to be realistic in terms of your
expectations. I think that's the other thing is that it's easy to think that this should be easy.
It's easy to think that if I could just find the right message, this thing will go a lot better with
the people who, who don't agree with me.
But I think it's really getting comfortable with the fact that it takes patience. It takes
persistence, and you have to learn how to personalize messages and tailor messages to
different groups and different people.
HOST: That's great advice for all of us public health communicators, especially those that
are questioning how well they've done and they've have done well. And this is just some
nuggets of information that can help them moving forward. So thank you professor Nowak
for joining us today on public health speaks.
GUEST: You're very welcome.