Why are Americans confused about COVID? Blame it on poor communication.

by James Davis
USA Today, January 26, 2022

Read the full commentary in USA Today.

Americans don’t trust their public health experts, a serious problem in the best of times but downright dangerous amid a pandemic. Just 44% of Americans trust in the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, while only 40% trust Dr. Anthony Fauci (the nation’s point man on all things COVID) according to an NBC News survey conducted this month. Trust in politicians is even lower.

It’s perfectly understandable why Americans feel this way. At all levels, our public health agencies have been using contradicting claims and supposition masquerading as fact…

►Do no harm. We are all familiar with the Hippocratic oath. It calls for doctors to first do no harm. The same should apply to public health officials. That means trying to convince your audience instead of trying to manipulate them. Manipulation is about controlling people through distortions rather than education. As it turns out, the original guidance telling the public not to wear masks was driven not by science but to prevent a run on N95 masks. In other words, it was manipulative.

►Use caution with projection models. Public health officials should avoid trying to sound like they have all the answers. Science is a process of inquiry and investigation, testing hypotheses and examining evidence. Especially when dealing with a new disease, it is inevitable we will not know everything. For example, early in the pandemic public health officials put far too much credence in predictive models that proved embarrassingly wrong. They used those models to create a sense of optimism – a worthy goal, but one that can lead to cynicism if predictions do not pan out…

►Don’t overpromise. There are findings that public health officials may believe to be true based on the best current knowledge, but those same findings might at some point prove to be false. For example, Walensky said this last spring: “Our data from the CDC today suggests that vaccinated people don’t carry the virus, don’t get sick.

Of course, with omicron now infecting both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, those past statements have fueled vaccine skeptics… Discipline in messaging is critical, as is immediately correcting statements that are flat out wrong or may be misconstrued.

►Don’t hype the threat, or sugarcoat bad news. Americans can’t take it. We expect spin from politicians and self-serving rhetoric from corporations. We don’t expect or want a similar runaround from public health agencies we rely on to help keep us and our families safe. Be straight with us, even if the news is bad. Tell us how you plan to make things better.

►Don’t demonize people. It would be odd for a political candidate to expect to win by telling persuadable voters, “If you don’t vote for me, you’re being selfish and don’t care about your neighbor.” Yet that is pretty much the approach some public officials and political leaders have taken when it comes to vaccine skeptics… A better approach is to be empathetic, data-driven and educational – not bullying or condescending.

Continuing to treat public health as just another political battleground will only lead to half the country tuning out important information that could save their lives. Health care is about people, not politics. Don’t manipulate your audience, be honest about what you know and don’t know, coordinate with other agencies, don’t overpromise, stay disciplined, be humble and, above all, keep politics out of it. That’s the only way to win back the trust of Americans.

James Davis, founder and president of Touchdown Strategies, is a public affairs professional with decades of communications experience dealing with war, floods, oil spills, political conventions and other crisis communications.

Read the full commentary in USA Today.

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