You already know how important communication is to your public during this incredibly stressful time. And you know how challenging it is. This article is meant to help you anticipate what’s coming and it affects your communication. We don’t pretend to have the answers to these issues, but we think it’s important to recognize them and try to consider how they might affect your messages and their impacts.
We see five big things happening over the next few months that will affect your Covid communication strategy:
- The election. The level of political polarization among Americans is at a particularly high level. You already know this, of course, and we expect this polarization to get worse as we get closer to November 3.
Researchers in this area have documented how political differences affect the reception by the public to health measures. In addition, many researchers believe that as “polarization progresses, the less likely individuals will be moved by the words or actions of others.”
- The economy. While the US has managed to avoid the full impacts of a deep recession during the first six months of the pandemic and has already begun to recover, many economists think we are headed for a much rougher time in the months ahead. (Although this assessment, too, has partisan differences.) As extended unemployment benefits and other stimulus measures run out, these economists warn that we will see sharp increases in permanent layoffs, hunger and other impacts. One poll of employers suggests that half are planning further layoffs along with making temporary furloughs permanent, while over 200,000 jobs cuts have been recently announced by several prominent companies. Although evictions have been delayed by a recent CDC order, one estimate of the number of people at risk of eviction is 19 – 23 million.
- The weather. As summer comes to a close and the fall approaches, some health experts expect the number of Covid-19 infections to spike; what some have referred to as a “second wave.” Beyond that, there is also the fear that flu season will compound the issues of the pandemic, in part because flu symptoms are similar to those of Covid-19.
- The school season. Whether schools in your area are returning to in-person classes, going with remote learning or following a hybrid model, this is a dynamic situation that is likely to continue to evolve. For areas that are planning on in-person classes, there is the risk that infection spread will force policy makers to rethink their choices and send students home. Whether they choose to remain with in-person classes or not, there will be public pressure from some residents to reverse that decision if infections spike. Similarly, for areas that choose not to resume in-person classes, there will be pressure from other residents to re-open schools.
- Advances in medicine. The enormous investments around the world made to combat the pandemic are beginning to bear fruit. There are promising advances in treatments and several potential vaccines that are going into clinical trials. Sadly, political polarization will impact this area as well, with criticisms – as we have seen – of new treatments, such as convalescent plasma. The same is likely to be true of vaccines, with some parties concerned about shortcuts in the approval process and others pushing for more rapid development and deployment.
We think that all of these forces boil down to one major theme: a tremendous level of noise in the public space – on social media, in-person and in many other forums. This noise represents a challenge in itself, making it difficult for you to be effective with any messages you need to communicate to your citizens. And it also represents a potential danger, as false information leads people to avoid protecting themselves, or worse, actively harming themselves or others.
Given all of these challenges, what can you do? Here are some thought starters, most of which you are hopefully already familiar with:
- Communicate often. Give your residents monthly, weekly or even daily updates on the Covid-19 situation in your community and resources that can help them. Make it clear that you’re a resource they can rely on.
- Keep your messages short and simple. Clear, simple messages are better than detailed ones, even if you must sacrifice precision. Clarity is paramount.
- Be transparent. Let citizens know where you are getting your information from so they can evaluate it for themselves. In a politically-polarized climate, being transparent is your best defense against claims of bias. If you’re concerned about the impact on being “short and simple” put your source information on a website.
- Use all the tools. You have an enormous range of communication tools at your fingertips. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and others let you communicate in the same places that your residents might otherwise find misinformation. Use your mass notification system, which – if it’s Hyper-Reach – will easily integrate with most social media outlets. You can also use press releases, your community website, blog posts and much more.
- Get help. The CDC, WHO and others are offering many free resources to inform and shape your message. Here are some of our favorites: