Coming Back from COVID: Can We Rebuild Trust in Health Communication? By Shelly Spoeth, Member at Large, Society for Health Communication; Principal Associate, Abt Associates

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of planning and moderating a panel entitled “Coming Back from COVID: How Do We Rebuild Trust in Health Communication?” at the Society for Health Communication annual Summit. In its sixth year, the Summit is an exciting time to see old friends (this year, back in person!), make new ones, and hear from great leaders in the field of communication.

The goal – candidly and honestly hear from leaders in the field about what we have and have not done right as health communicators these past few years and help outline what we need to do now. When planning this I knew this topic would not be without its challenges, and I knew we needed the right people to talk about this. They needed to represent a variety of industries – government, academia, corporate – and be experts in the field, which led me to:

Jay Bernhardt, PhD, Professor and Dean, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin; Founder, Society for Health Communication
Darcy Sawatzki, MA, EVP, Head of Public Health, Evoke Kyne
Matthew McCurdy, MPH, Co-Founder, BLKHLTH

This panel ended up being engaging, informative, and a call to action to all health communicators. I hope a few of these recommendations resonate with you, make their way into your health communication practices, or just get you thinking a little differently.

• Did we actually have trust from people before the COVID-19 pandemic or was it the entities we represented i.e., government, organizations, etc.? With this in mind, are we building back trust in us or the organizations we represent? Those are two different things and one we can’t control as much as the other.
• One critical error of the COVID-19 response was not using the tried and true, evidence- based Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) program, which was developed from lessons learned during past public health emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed this program and provides trainings, tools, and resources to help health communicators, emergency responders, and leaders of organizations communicate effectively during emergencies. Basically, we have a roadmap to do this well. Let’s use it.
• Politics collided with government communications in a way never before seen and, in the end, lacked clarity and empathy. Spokespeople for many organizations needed to ask for patience and admit there may be confusion and messages may change since we were dealing with science and an everchanging virus.
• There was a lack of audience segmentation. By trying to communicate to everyone with the same messages and information, we didn’t meet the needs of different people and in the end, potentially increased the inequities and the toll of the virus.
• To reach different audiences and really reflect and diversify the field we need to bring more people to the table early to be part of the solutions, messages, and spokespeople. 

Do we want to engage with influencers, talk to them about the messaging before you ask them to do something for you? Make authentic connections with those who are in the audience and have lived experiences and hire them!

To learn more about the Society and our work in and across the field of health communication and to get involved, visit and become an individual member, it’s free!

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