Communication Strategy

How to talk to people about COVID precautions so that they’ll hear you.

Actors Cathy Roberts and Scott Perez in Durango, Colo.
(Jeremy Wade Shockley for KHN)
The Mask Marshal Program gets tourists to wear their dang masks
in a way that doesn’t lead to a shootin’ match
(KHN, 03.31.21)

The tourist town of Durango, Colo., thought about hiring a private security firm
to force tourists to wear masks in public. Instead, they hired actors to get masks on faces
in a totally different way – as characters from the Wild West
(which is what people come to Durango to see).

Best way to get kids comfy with swabbing? Have a kid show them how easy it is.

This video from the California Department of Public Health shows kids as young as 5 years old swabbing themselves for a COVID test. It’s as easy as picking your nose – and what kid *doesn’t* want to be allowed to pick their nose in school?

Some schools have chosen to make their own demonstration videos, starring school nurses and kids from their districts.

Community Immunity,
from Hip Hop Public Health.
Want kids to remember something? Set it to music.

Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock were the first to use this ultra-effective teaching technique. (Admit it, you still remember the words to Conjunction Junction, right?) HipHop Public Health started in the Before Times, with videos about physical fitness and nutrition. They’ve now pivoted to raps about washing your hands, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated. Some tunes are available in Spanish.

People aren’t communicating very well.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.
Public-health messaging matters,
and we’ve screwed it up but good.

(The Atlantic, 02.26.21)

Turns out that public-health messaging is a lot like talking to your kids. It’s not really that hard to do properly, and yet so many people appear to have a hard time with it.
Here’s what we’ve gotten wrong so far, and how to fix things.

  • Risk compensation – aka “If we improve safety a little, people will do stupid things out of a ‘false sense of security'” – is not a thing. Yes, a few people will be idiots, but not enough to overcome the benefit of the safety measure. If something improves people’s safety, tell them about it.
  • Tell people how the disease works. Don’t make up hard-and-fast rules if the virus doesn’t behave that way.
  • Scolding and shaming make people hide what they’re doing. Instead, point out what people are doing right and emphasize how many of us are doing it.
  • Instead of saying “If you’re not perfect, you’re awful,” find ways for people to do what they need to do as safely as possible.
  • If something is really likely but scientists don’t have slam-dunk evidence for it yet, they should say that. Saying “There’s no evidence for this” makes people think it isn’t likely to be true at all.
Smiling kiddos. Image by Prawny from Pixabay.
We Know How to Curb
the Pandemic. How
Do We Make People Listen?
(NY Times, 12.10.20)

Critical guidance for administrators and student leaders creating messages about anti-COVID measures!

“How do you persuade people to do things that are beneficial to the community, like social distancing — or crucially, being vaccinated when the time comes — if such actions don’t immediately benefit those who take them or even put them at a disadvantage in some way? As it turns out, research suggests that we are more likely to engage in ‘prosocial behavior’ if we think lots of others are doing so, too.” (emphasis added)

“Wash Your Hands” poster.
Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response from Unsplash.
What The ‘Designated Driver’ Campaign Could Teach Us About How To Handle The Pandemic (WBUR, 02.07.21)

To be successful, public-health messaging needs to be consistent and transparent, and it needs to resonate with the audience it’s targeting.

Magnifying glass and fingerprint.
Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay
Instead of “negative” we should be saying “not detected”
(NY Times, 12.23.20)

“‘“Negative’ can mislead people into thinking they are safer from the virus than they actually are. . . . People who test negative one morning might be positive by the next, either simply because the test missed the virus, or because they were newly infected.”

Image by iXimus from Pixabay.
Posters Can Change Behaviors
(Lunn, P.D., et al., 11.2020)

This short scientific journal article showed two different techniques that can make people use more caution about social distancing: make them think about infecting vulnerable people, or make them think about infecting lots of people.


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