Best practices for public-health communications in the era of COVID-19
COVID-19 represents the first global pandemic of the social media age and an unprecedented communications challenge for today’s public officials. The burden of local government officials has always been to communicate proactively, clearly and in a fact-based way that avoids overtly persuasive tones that could be perceived as bias. That imperative is more important than ever during a pandemic.
Given the fast-evolving reality of the pandemic, the continued unknowns, and the prevalence of misinformation (and outright disinformation) circulating across social platforms, how can public health officials break through the clutter to ensure their messages are reaching the people who need them most?
Communicating about risk and best practices for staying safe has been challenging enough these past six months. As we move forward, public officials will also be tasked with communicating updates, protocols and safety information around potential vaccines—a divisive subject surrounded by misinformation even when we’re not in a pandemic. To communicate effectively around this and other crucial topics, public health officials must be able to:
- Understand and reliably measure public sentiment around a given topic as it evolves on a daily basis
- Identify and recruit appropriate voices to help carry facts and information to the public, in both a general and targeted capacity
In tackling this challenge, public agencies must prioritize their limited resources for maximum effect, and that’s a daunting task given the ever-expanding volume and reach of online content and conversations. As public officials evaluate their communications strategies for the coming difficult months, these five best practices should remain top of mind.
Understand that social media will be a force, whether you influence it or not
Social media and other digital platforms have already played a massive role in the shaping of public understanding of and reaction to COVID-19, and the same will prove true in the coming months, especially as the possibility of a vaccine looms larger. No public health agency can control what’s happening in online conversations, but officials must recognize this activity for the force that it is.
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