Trump, joined by Pence and members of the Coronavirus Task Force, speaks to members of the press Wednesday, February 26, 2020 at the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
The Trump administration’s communication around coronavirus planning, containment, and risk is an object lesson in transparency and trust.
It turns out, we need both.
Transparency in communication or content doesn’t just mean flooding your audience with information. Spending hours poring over reports and prognostication doesn’t necessarily empower you to prioritize your preparedness efforts.
Should you buy masks? Stock up on Purell? Cancel travel? Stockpile soup? It’s hard to focus on what you should do first with limited resources of time, money, and attention — and more information just demands more information.
It’s hard to focus on what you should do first with limited resources of time, money, and attention — and more information just demands more information.
People become more confident in their own self-care and trusting in government preparedness efforts when communication has five main characteristics. In my research, I’ve found trustworthy content is consistent, humble, transparent, appropriately detailed, and collaborative.
Consistent warnings, terminology, and updates foster confidence because they’re empowering — even if those updates acknowledge unknowns.
But do you want to undermine confidence? Offer destabilizing communication…
Tell us Health and Human Services Secretary Azar, then Vice President Pence, then Azar will lead efforts.
Invent fictions that a vaccine will be ready in April.
Don’t do that.
Public information builds confidence, trust, and safety when it’s delivered with humility. What’s that look like? First, speak in the first person. Rather than lie, tell us what researchers don’t yet know. In the context of coronavirus or not, I’d rather have a sober view of the work ahead than platitudes that deceive and condescend.
That gets to transparency: in healthcare, we know patients and caregivers are empowered participants in their own care when doctors lay out the treatment plan. Frank, honest summaries of the process ahead build trust that the experts know what they’re doing. People who receive that information can steel themselves and prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically — these are things we might need to do in the face of a pandemic too.
Public health communication demands the right level of detail to be empowering. Research from both the US NIH and British NHS reveals people want to be able to speak intelligently about disease. Plain language that helps bring people up to speed on jargon educates and empowers them, driving their self confidence.
Plain language that helps bring people up to speed on jargon educates and empowers them, driving their self confidence.
This administration’s Coronavirus response is a crisis of communication that’s fueling a crisis of confidence. We need to be able to trust in public health efforts if we want to remain healthy, both individually and as a society. But that goal takes investment in both science and more empowering communication.