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How Strategic Communications Can Transform the Response to Covid-19

Sam* knows a lot about Covid-19 testing. 

He can tell you the difference between an antigen test and a PCR test. He can explain the NFL’s testing protocol and how the Defense Production Act could be used to scale up manufacturing. If you really want to know, he can tell you about the eccentric billionaire funding his own lab, or breakthrough tests promised by various foreign companies. 

Sam is not a public health official. He’s just a father from Baltimore who joined us for a recent focus group on Covid-19 testing.

“I read a lot about Covid,” he said sheepishly. “Every news article about tests getting better or a vaccine getting closer. I read every alert that comes across my phone.”

But in many ways, the more Sam reads about Covid-19 testing, the less confident he feels.

“I still feel I don’t understand the mechanics of it. I don’t understand….” he trails off. “I sit there and I’m like, ‘I don’t understand how this works.”

As public health communicators, we’ve been giving people a lot of information about Covid-19. But we haven’t been giving them many reasons to act. Sam didn’t embark on his quest for knowledge to get an MPH—he’s just trying to figure out how to give his daughter a safe Halloween. 

“It’s her favorite holiday,” he said. “She’s my primary concern in life, and I’ve broken her heart so many times over the last six months.” 

Communicating in a way that reflects people’s authentic aspirations and feelings is the most important step to changing behavior. The good news is that science and data can inform our approach to this as much as it informs our pursuit of a vaccine. We’ve studied how to test people—now we need to study why they would want to get tested. 

Today, The Rockefeller Foundation is launching an effort to use the power of strategic communications to accelerate the nation’s response to Covid-19. As a first step, we are releasing Testing & Tracing Message Handbook. The Handbook draws on insights from cognitive science, linguistics, focus groups and a nationally representative message-testing survey. It includes audience insights, tested language and science-based do’s and don’ts that public health officials can use to transform their communications.

The Handbook includes observations  that are both surprising and heartening:

People are more unified than we think. While the media focuses on Covid-19 preventive measures as divisive, nearly 8 out of 10 Americans continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and wash their hands.

They’re more motivated to “do their part” than to go back to a restaurant. While politicians and public health leaders emphasize how testing and tracing will help us reopen the economy, the most motivating messages focus on something much more personal: our responsibility to others.

We’ve been making it too “easy” on ourselves. Emphasizing how simple and easy an action is can backfire by making it seem unimportant. Instead, emphasize the impact the action can have if people do it quickly.

Based on these insights and others, the Handbook details messages, images and stories proven to motivate people to get tested and participate in contact tracing. But as with any public health intervention, the recommendations are just the first step. To be successful, we have to help practitioners implement them, measure our success and make changes over time. The Rockefeller Foundation will be committing the time, energy and resources needed to make this happen.

Over the next several months, we will:

Host training webinars to show users how to put the recommendations into practice

Conduct one-on-one conversations with public health communicators to answer questions and provide technical assistance

Field monthly tracking surveys to measure changes in attitudes toward Covid-19

Produce detailed message briefs on specific topics like rapid testing

Highlight examples of successful Covid-19 Communications on social media

Build a Covid Communications Community of Practice, to learn from case studies, share audience research and crowdsource questions for exploration.

Changing communications habits won’t happen overnight. But we have to start now—because the most promising strategy will be for naught if we can’t motivate people to participate. And if Sam is any indication, the right words can have a transformative effect. By the end of our focus group, he was finally feeling confident in “how this works.”

“If there could be a rapid test in every home for every family and to take every morning, we could all get back to normal,” he concluded. “Wouldn’t that be ideal.”

It certainly would be, and we can get there —together.


*Name changed to ensure confidentiality