Health Communications in a Crisis
When you have a brand new infectious disease, you know very little ... You need to let people know that the recommendations you give today may be different tomorrow, when more information is known.
One thing was obvious: Just providing information doesn’t cut it.
“A lot of times, people want to say that they want to communicate or do health communications, but what they really want to do is find out how they can get their point of view and materials to whoever they have targeted,” Nowak said. “Then, oftentimes, they’re surprised when their materials and information reach those people and fail to persuade them.”
Communication, Nowak said, is about dialogue, listening and trying to understand the world through the lens of the people you’re trying to reach. For vaccines, that means training health care professionals to effectively communicate the importance and safety of childhood vaccinations. And in pro-vaccination ad campaigns, that means featuring doctors and nurses prominently because those are the people parents trust most when it comes to caring for their children. For encouraging people to get flu shots, it means emphasizing that the vaccine protects not only the person who gets the shot but also loved ones who are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill.
Communicating about COVID-19 has been much different. Experts started out saying masks were unnecessary only to reverse course and implore everyone to wear a mask when they’re in public. Hydroxychloroquine started as a promising medical treatment for COVID patients only to have doctors later say they weren’t seeing a benefit to using the drug, but they did see serious side effects.
“Ideally, rapid changes in advice wouldn’t happen,” Nowak said. “One of the key principles that’s guiding you in your public health communication is that you’re probably not making endorsements of things prematurely. Typically, when you’re in an environment where there is so much uncertainty, you have to be cautious when you’re making statements of certainty.”
But overall, Nowak thinks both public health officials and the news media largely have done admirably navigating these ever-changing waters.
“I’ve come to learn through my experience in research that a lot of what we do in health communications is setting, guiding and managing people’s expectations,” Nowak said. Using press conferences to update the public on the situation and what experts believe will unfold in the days and weeks ahead is imperative. But that’s not the only thing people need to hear.
“Letting people know that we can and will get through this,” Nowak said, “you have to have those positive affirmations.”