Lessons from the Field: Optimizing Public Health Communications

By Debbie Llewelyn
Women walking while looking at phone

On a Zoom with colleagues the other day, someone mentioned, “a year and a half ago, when we went into lockdown…” Has it really been that long? Apparently, it has been even longer. And for just about that entire time, we have seen valid criticisms of public health communications on the pandemic.

Preparing for the next healthcare crisis

Undoubtedly, our public health leaders – like the rest of us – have faced myriad (what we hope to be) once-in-a-lifetime challenges as they have struggled to clearly convey factual, up-to-date and evolving health information and guidance to a disparate population. Certainly, there have been uniquely valuable lessons learned over the past year-and-a-half which will better prepare the public health community for the next crisis. However, as we know all too well, this pandemic is not done with us yet. With nearly 33 percent of Americans still unvaccinated (as of November 2021), and hospitalizations and deaths remaining at intolerable rates, a ripe opportunity to improve public health communications around the current crisis still exists.

As marketing and communications consultants who regularly help our healthcare clients assess and optimize communications materials, HawkPartners offers several relevant “lessons from the field” to optimize public health communications.

Make the complex simple

The Covid-19 pandemic has forged a new global vocabulary – “social distancing,” “antibodies,” “mRNA” – while spawning a vast array of data and other learnings, all of which public health leaders have endeavored to share with non-scientist citizens. Our clients often face parallel challenges when trying to educate newly diagnosed patients or caregivers on complex medical conditions or treatments.

Our work with these clients underscores the importance of striving for simplicity. Recognizing that the American populace spans a wide range of education levels, information sources and language proficiencies, public health communicators should indeed strive to use simple language that is understandable even for those with low health literacy. While there is a plethora of distinct and sometimes diverging available data and direction, we counsel clients to center communications on the least amount of content necessary and convey it in language that is as straightforward and simple as possible.

In addition, there is an added level of difficulty in conveying relevant statistics, as with the efficacy of the novel Covid vaccines or risk of contracting the virus once vaccinated. When faced with figures suggesting 95 percent prevention “efficacy” with one vaccine vs. 66 percent with another, consumers have been overwhelmed; many struggle to understand percentages in general, and these figures are a percentage based on the community infection percentage—so a percent of a percentage.

A clearer mode of communications may be to deploy the more intuitive “X in 100,” for example to describe the risk of infection, ideally avoiding any switch between “denominators” (e.g., X in 100 in one case and X in 10,000 in another) across messages, and endeavoring not to move between ratios and percentages. The key is to convey in simple terms the most relatable and impactful statistics that will resonate best with the community.

Ultimately, communicators should strive not only for simplicity and clarity but, as suggested above, also consistency. For the latter, avoiding mixed messaging from distinct spokespeople, and regularly referring to an always-current central website can be effective – particularly when this site and related communications make clear that public health guidance will continue to evolve because our understanding of the science continues to evolve; fortunately, the facts today are more robust than the facts yesterday.

Leverage the Fear Factor (Appropriately)

For two decades HawkPartners has worked with a range of vaccine manufacturers in different areas, as well as with makers of therapeutic treatments which aim to prevent the progression of a broad array of diseases.

Many of these brands have been wary of using what may be perceived to be “fear tactics” in communicating with the public – and, in fact, when we test materials certain consumers do push back on such efforts. But the reality is that for consumers to be motivated to take a desired healthcare behavior – whether it is accepting or seeking out a vaccine or complying with a daily pill regimen – most do need (and acknowledge the motivational power of) a basic understanding of (and in some cases a reminder of) the real potential negative outcomes of not doing so. Often it is, in fact, the “scarier” tested ad concept which wins.

To appropriately “leverage the fear factor” without pushing away consumers, especially when communicating about Covid-19, it is essential to stay realistic, fact-based and truthful – not overly-dramatic. Staying true to the facts and avoiding hysteria helps to create the appropriate level of personal relevance, and then a sense of urgency around the desired health behavior. Indeed, many vaccine-hesitant individuals experience a real “fear of the unknown” – making it all the more important to accurately remind them that the “known” consequences of Covid can be even scarier.

And it is important to note that potential negative consequences of not following health recommendations may not be just medical, but also personal. That is, it can be quite compelling to remind people of what they will miss – either while they are sick, or if the worst outcome occurs and they can no longer “be there” at all. This type of messaging should resonate even more after our collective year-plus of missing virtually everything.

Elevate the “Science”

As noted above, the “fear factor” can only work when it is based in fact, not hyperbole, and to get to this fact, messaging must be anchored in science. In public health communications, it is crucial to elevate this “science” and to explain that while science, by its nature and design, is always evolving, that does not make it unreliable. Rather, we are simply paying much closer, real-time attention to the scientific method than most of us ever have before.

Lessons from the Field: Optimizing Public Health Communications

As the physicians we interview often like to remind us, “I haven’t thought about this since medical school!” For the non-healthcare experts among us, it has likely been considerably longer since they were immersed in the study of science. It is thus worthwhile to remind the audience how science works – with hypotheses, testing, and evolution as the “facts on the ground” change, which we all see happening at great speed in the era of Covid-19.

It has certainly been unnerving to witness this scientific process happening in real-time for the last 20 months, as the data and guidance continually shifted before our eyes. Apart from individuals living with conditions like HIV, Hepatitis C or chronic myelogenous leukemia, who have witnessed revolutionary advances in their respective treatment landscapes, most of us have been insulated from any major impact on our daily lives due to this scientific process. It can be reassuring to remind the public that it is normal, and we should be grateful, that public health guidance is continually evolving; it is doing so as it must follow the science, which means studying the facts today, which are more robust and relevant than the facts yesterday.

Tell powerful stories

When we ask patients what else they want to learn about a given treatment, a common response is testimonials; they want to see that it worked well for a real person, like them. So yes, the “science” and the facts are key – but personal stories can create an undeniable added emotional connection.

In the case of the pandemic, we have already seen potent accounts of individuals sharing “why I got the vaccine,” or “why I wish I had gotten the vaccine.” Other personal stories likely to have an impact are reminders of how earlier vaccines have eradicated prior threats (as pediatricians like to share when they talk about the value of newer infant vaccines), or the lengths that some will go to in other countries to secure Covid or other vaccines.

Hearing first-hand accounts from others – particularly those deemed relatable since they have been in a similar position, or those who share a common cultural background, and those considered credible due to their status or leadership position either nationally or in a given community (for example church leaders, local physicians, city leaders) – may help to “seal the deal” in terms of changing minds and positively impacting beliefs and behaviors.

Maintain your credibility

As explored in HawkPartners’ Brand Authenticity work, consumers gravitate to brands which are “brutally honest” – brands that can be relied upon to tell the truth even when news is bad – and “unapologetically transparent.” Perhaps not surprisingly, among all industries tested, Pharma/healthcare now rises to the top in terms of perceived importance of being authentic. When it comes to public health communications, if the messenger is not seen as clear, candid, credible, and transparent, then why should Americans heed the message?

As discussed, while these communications must be simple, clear and consistent, and science-based, they also must come from credible sources in a fact-based and straightforward way. Scientific experts who seem to have a single agenda – to keep Americans safe and healthy – are apt to more successfully influence public actions. Similarly, leveraging trusted local healthcare workers, for example to convey key messaging, but also distribute consumer-friendly materials, and ultimately provide tailored, individualized public health education, should enhance the efficacy of these efforts.

As we reflect on the challenges and successes of public health communications throughout the pandemic, HawkPartners laments that we did not have the opportunity to team with the CDC, federal or local governments to help them assess and optimize their efforts. But for now, we hope the lessons above may positively impact ongoing discourse and wish to remind these key communicators that it is not too late! As it does for our clients, well-designed primary consumer research can help you monitor the impact of your communications, test potential alternatives, and ultimately make the most convincing case to your target audience. And in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, optimized communications materials may truly mean the difference between life and death.

Connect with Debbie Llewelyn to learn more about optimizing communication materials for your brand.