Public Health Speaks

Public Health Communications Collaborative: Amplifying COVID-19 Public Health Messaging

November 09, 2021 National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC)
Public Health Speaks
Public Health Communications Collaborative: Amplifying COVID-19 Public Health Messaging
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we sit down with an experienced communications strategist to discuss her role in leading an important initiative that brings together key partners in coordinating and amplifying public health messaging on COVID-19. 

Rhea Farberman
Director of Strategic Communications and Policy Research
Trust for America’s Health. 

Public Health Speaks (Episode 8)

Podcast Script:           Public Health Communications Collaborative – Amplifying COVID-19 Public Health Messaging through Partnerships, Collaboration  

Date:                           11/4/21

Run Time:                    14:17

This is Public Health Speaks.  I’m Robert Jennings   

As our nation continues its slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, public health professionals are now assessing the effectiveness of our public health interventions and what can be improved to address current and future health threats.      

HEADLINE: Sometimes I think we all want to throw up our hands in frustration about what's on social media, but we can't, public health has to have a presence on social media. So, let's use our channels and be as sophisticated. 


Welcome to Public Health Speaks… a podcast series brought to you by the National Public Health Information Coalition.  

With each episode, we explore the successes and challenges in public health communications and ways to tackle the most pressing issues facing federal, state, and local jurisdictions.     

In this episode, we sit down with an experienced communications strategist to discuss her role in leading an important initiative that brings together key partners in coordinating and amplifying public health messaging on COVID-19.   


Joining me today is Rhea Farberman.  Rhea is the Director of Strategic Communications and Policy Research at Trust for America’s Health. In that role, she executes TFAH’s strategies to communicate its work to policymakers, stakeholder organizations and the news media.

Welcome Rhea!

Rhea Farberman: Thanks Robert. Good to be with you. 

Robert Jennings:  Well, it's great to have you with us and you have a pretty important job with Trust for America's Health. But what we're here to talk about today is the work you do with the Public Health Communications Collaborative.

Can you tell us a little bit about the collaborative? 

Rhea Farberman: Sure thing happy to. So, TFAH my home base, Trust for America's Health, got together with two other partners in the spring of 2020, just when COVID was really surging and our two other partners with the Beaumont foundation and the CDC foundation and the three organizations are the founders and the managing partners of the public health communications collaborative.  And we got together to fill two needs that we thought were very important at that time. And still are today. One is to provide messaging guidance and assistance to local public health departments - those [00:03:00] smaller departments that often have a one-person communications, maybe not even a communication shop. And so they don't have the in-house capacity to produce some social graphics let's say, or fine tune messaging or do messaging research. 

And we also wanted to amplify CDC messaging and help bridge between CDC’s expertise and knowledge and the public and help bridge with messaging. So those are our two primary goals and our mission. And we also had the assistance of some other partners that we call amplification and advising partners.

Robert Jennings: Okay. 

So you got into it a little bit about resources that you provide. Can you get into some specific resources that you can provide public health communicators? 

Rhea Farberman: Sure. And I invite everyone to go to our website, which is public health, collaborative dot Org. It's really a tremendous resource for your messaging needs.

During the pandemic. There are four types of resources that I really want to highlight.   One is messaging guidance. So what are the top level messages? What's the message of the day message of the week this week?   We also try to anticipate what are the tough questions that a local official might get at a town hall meeting or in a, in a press conference or at a meeting with the mayor orincoming to you online.

What are the questions you're facing from consumers and some, some help with answering those questions. We also create and provide social graphics. So downloadable graphics that a local department can use on their. And there's also a misinformation tracker, which is a joint project with the good works project between PHCC and the good work projects.

And that is literally tracking COVID misinformation, both in traditional media and online. To, to make sure that the public health official is aware of what's being said and particularly on social channels. 

Robert Jennings: Okay. That's great. And so can you give me an example, is there like a best practice that you've seen on misinformation that you've noticed out there where folks have monitored, maybe some messaging that they were able to correct. 

Rhea Farberman: Yeah. Well, one thing that our tool online tool does is suggest not only are we identifying trending misinformation, but we're also suggesting what to do about it. Is this a piece of information that we have to respond to immediate or is it something we should continue to monitor? Is it something that at this point we can ignore?  So helping you with making some of those judgements as part of what we do. But we're also providing you with social graphics that you can use to maybe not necessarily directly in a head-on approach challenge something that's online. 

Robert Jennings: what I'm hearing you say that this is not a passive exercise. This is a very active strategy to address misinformation and disinformation.

So that's great advice for our audience. So let's take another track here. Research and data, play an integral role in the messaging put out by the collaborative. What should public health communicators know about the importance of understanding and quantifying data to make their messaging more effective? 

Rhea Farberman: Yeah, let me break this down and talk about two different types of data.

First of all, it's consumer research. In any public communications effort, you have to first understand your audience.  Understand what they understand about your topic? Where is your audience visa via topic, whether it's masking or vaccination or any other public health issue, understand your audience?

Because if you don't, if you make assumptions about where your audience is, what your audience thinks your messaging may well be off. So do your baseline research to understand where your audience is and also message test so you canunderstand your audience, come up with some potential messages and test those messages to make sure that your intended message is actually what's being received. And, but I understand that that's a lot to ask for a local department for a one person shop, um, who already under siege. So that's one of the things we're trying to do to help the local departments is to do that kind of message research and message testing.

The other kind of data I want to talk about isthe critical data that CDC provides all of us.  We all visit the CDC web probably every day to look for what's the latest data. So again, I think part of role and every department's role is to take that data and speak about it in plain English.

Robert Jennings: Excellent. So as a person who has been in strategic communication space for many years, what unique communication challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic presented that we may not have been prepared for either in scale or in scope?

Rhea Farberman: Yeah, well, you know, I think there's quite a few of them. I think that consumers are confused and they're fatigued. I think, speaking for myself, I didn't anticipate that common sense public health messaging would become a political issue. And that's unfortunate and something we're still grappling with.

I think that the public's confusion is very much based on their lack of understanding of the process, the scientific process and the federal process by which we make decisions about vaccine safety. For it. For example, as an example, in the last couple of weeks, we've had kind of a start and stop process in information flow about vaccines.

We understand that there's value in that process, but for the public, it's confusing to hear. So I think a big part of our job is to help the public understand that as public health officials, we are going to update and advise public health guidance based on.

New data and a growing understanding and that's as it should be, that it's a good thing when we are updating the guidance based on new knowledge, new data, a better understanding of the virus. 

We interviewed surgeon general Murthy a couple months ago and he emphasized whenever he gives public health guidance he wants to leave room for that guidance changing, which I think is really smart telegraph to your audience that this is what I know today based on what data is available today.

But tomorrow I might learn something new and I'm going to update my. Guidance to the public, based on that new information, I think it's really important for the public to understand. 

Robert Jennings:  And I think that to the core of that is a trust and consistency, right? So the folks that you are wanting to let know that the messages might change, they have to trust you, and it can't be perceived as a flip-flopping.

And sothat's good advice. I want to ask you have there been effective partnerships established and addressing some of the pandemic communication challenges in your opinion, what were some of the successful ones? 

Rhea Farberman: Yeah, I mean, there's been so much work done in this arena and I really applaud all my colleagues for all the work that's been done in terms of toolkits and public outreach messaging and messaging support for public health officials. 

I think the resources that are most critical are those that are really rooted in the research. And I also want to really share kudos to my colleagues at the de Beaumont foundation.  They've done so much consumer research to help all of us understand what are the barriers to access. What understanding why some people are hesitant for instance to be vaccinated.  Understanding what those, what that hesitancy is rooted in. So we can move people. We can educate people. We can move people from hesitant to at least willing to hear the reasons to be vaccinated and then maybe being willing to be vaccinated. 

Robert Jennings: So the five to 11 year old approval was just announced. Can the audience go to your website now and see that messaging, or is it going to be available? 

Rhea Farberman: Yeah. What we decided to do this week is to have two phases of messaging support around the five to 11 authorization. I felt that it was very important to immediately get information materials out.

As soon as Dr Walensky made the final announcement that the use was authorized or recommended. So on Wednesday morning we released the first set of messaging materials, which was top level messaging, some Q and A messaging in one social graphic. That was just basically what I call awareness materials.

So we did that Wednesday morning, but we also wanted to do a second round of messaging that we hope to release early next week that will include tested messages. So we took about a week to put some messaging out in the field that we think will work for parents of this age group, but we wanted to test it.

And that testing is being wrapped up today as a matter of fact and we'll fine tune our messaging advice based on that field research and get that out next. 

Robert Jennings: Well, thank you for that. And we've, we've pretty much reached our time together but I did want to ask you one final question. What advice would you like to leave with our audience regarding the importance of the work they do and how they can connect with the collaborative.

Rhea Farberman: Well, I, first of all, want to say thank you to your audience and, and share my admiration for the work you do. It's hard work. I know it's been grueling work over the last year and a half to two years. Um, but it's so important. So thank you for what you do. I've spent my life in  health communications and I think it's so important.

So thank you and I hope you'll use PHCC as a, as a resource.  We try to be fast, so we can have resources in front of you when you need it, which is immediately as news breaks.  But we also try to be thorough and always based on research and message testing. So I hope that we find a good middle ground between those kind of competing goals. 

And so use our website, we update it a couple times a week and sign up for our news alerts. So you can get an alert when there's new content or a new webinar announced. So you can avail yourselves of those resources. 

Robert Jennings: Well Rhea, thank you for joining us today. This has been an enlightening conversation and I hope you come back.

Rhea Farberman: I would be happy to Robert. Good to speak to you, 

Robert Jennings: speaking to you as well. Thanks for listening to public health speaks. Please join us next time. As we continue to address important and timely issues, relevant to public health communication professionals around the country. If you like the show, please share it with your colleagues.

And if you have comments or questions, we'd like to hear. Email us at info at dot org. That's The show is a production of the National Public Health Information Coalition. Thanks for listening.