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When it comes to communicating health messages "we must treat the public as a partner"

20th November 2020 about a 11 minute read

It was a pleasure to chair this latest in our series of webinars on public health messaging. 

We covered a lot of ground. We heard how, when it comes to communicating health information, the public should be viewed as a partner in the process and not just a recipient of messages. 

Underpinning this is the need for trust. We heard how trust is going to be vital if the COVID-19 vaccine is to get the take-up it needs to work.

And of course the emotional connection in messaging is also a critical factor. The panel discussed the power of emotional resonance, as demonstrated, for example, by the success of footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on child food poverty.

Force for good

We also heard how social media can be a great tool for getting public health messages across. In many ways it has been a force for good in terms of sharing information and positivity, as well as enabling connections between those who are physically distant. It has also been a platform to share advice and tips. 

 But social media has also been problematic when it comes to the spread of misinformation. When we think of the pandemic as an infodemic there are particular concerns around the anti-vax content that has been emerging recently. 

What can we do about negative social media content? The government has recently taken action to tackle misinformation online. Will this work? Will it be enough? Our guests shared their thoughts on how to combat the harmful effects of misleading content. 

COVID death toll

We also touched on how the rising number of COVID fatalities, and the daily reported death toll, no longer seems to have the impact it once did. It has become just a number. We are no longer having those conversations about death that we were at the start of the pandemic. As the trustee of a hospice this is a subject very close to my heart.  

Listening to our panel of experts, for me one of the key messages is: when it comes to communicating with people about public health, when it involves restrictions on their behaviour, particularly over a prolonged period of time, consistent clear messaging and building trust is vital. 

Acknowledge barriers

But let’s face it, this really isn’t easy. And I think that has to be a starting point for any discussion; let’s have a clear plan for addressing the problems, but it has to begin with acknowledging the barriers. 

As we survey the policy landscape nine months into the pandemic we have public health, the economy and the future. And the government has to strike the right balance between the attention it gives these competing priorities when it comes to messaging. In the UK currently we have Brexit, the economy and the noise from the US election. In a few months time it’ll be something else.

Shedding light

I hope that the ground-breaking research Future Care Capital has done with Ipsos MORI on social media users’ perception of public health messaging sheds some much-needed light on the subject. 

The hope is it will promote a better understanding of the UK public’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn can inform the policy-making process and help ensure that public health messaging will be made much clearer, particularly as we move into the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine.

I believe our webinar discussion is a helpful contribution to the debate. Here is a flavour of some of the panel’s comments, but I would also urge you to watch the full one-hour webinar here. 

How can social media help promote trust?

“At Ipsos MORI we are concerned about the lazy meme that trust is collapsing. It’s not.” Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI

 Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI  

Trust is hugely important… Most people still trust Sir Patrick Vallance (the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser) … and trust in scientists is pretty high. Trust in the media, interestingly, hasn’t changed at all during the course of the pandemic.

We’ve looked at trust in political leaders. During the pandemic we compared Britain, America, New Zealand, Germany, Italy and France. What was interesting is basically everybody did better than Britain and America. 

Those leaders who have managed to be personable, but also transparent, did best…. Focus on excellence and focus on competence. Do what you say you will, and then you will build trust…

We’ve seen so many examples of ‘world beating’ things that were going to be ready by certain times… But it’s about under-promising and over-delivering. That seems to be the way of back from this. Don’t say it’s going to happen until you can actually do it. People want to support the government. They want to deal with this”

“I take my litmus test from the hairdressers - the number of times people have said: ‘Is Tier One the bad one?’ There’s a need for clarity of message. Is it ‘medium, high and severe’? If we go back to tiers after this lockdown they need different names.” Jenny Ousbey, Managing Director of communications agency OVID Health

Jenny Ousbey, Managing Director of communications agency OVID Health

In terms of the power of connectivity, I think we can harness that through the power of communities. How can you harness the voice of patient communities? I think social media, and doing it online, is a way you can do it quite powerfully. 

In the past couple of months, we’ve seen research-led charities getting together and campaigning. Clearly they’ve had to make lots of cuts and that will significantly impact their clinical research budgets.

OVID Health has create the Patient Partnership Index, which brings together pharma companies and charities, to promote good comms and good advocacy.

Social media is a really good example of how people’s resources can be pooled and shared when it comes to that ‘societal reset’ that we’re going to see over the next couple of years. 

“People aren’t interested in the negativity and the horrible stuff they see every day on the news. They want something they can connect with … like people’s personal stories.” Dan Papworth-Smyth, Head of Digital Engagement, Breast Cancer Now

Dan Papworth-Smyth, Head of Digital Engagement, Breast Cancer Now

Recent research has suggested that trust in charities is falling … This is really fundamental to us because a large part of our role is information provision… 

The first time people are given a leaflet after their breast cancer diagnosis, it will often be from us… If there’s any kind of wavering in that messaging, if it doesn’t make them feel we know what we are doing, that’s no good. So we work with the Patient Information Forum to really make sure we get it right. 

How can we combat the harmful effects of social media?

“With fake news you have to call it out. But the difficulty is, because of the way the algorithms work, the very act of calling it out draws more attention to the conspiracy theory”. Ben Page, Ipsos MORI

Ben Page, Ipsos MORI

Eric Schmidt, who was on the board of Google, said: “We never intended social media to be a massive way of amplifying idiots and loons.” Well, get wise with the programme, Eric!

There’s plenty of evidence that social media is having a major negative effect. About seven in every 100 people say the pandemic is a made up conspiracy and a fraud. And they turn out to be the people who rely on social media for their news. And they tend to be younger. 

They think COVID testing is harvesting everyone’s DNA for some great reset. And that it’s part of a compulsory vaccination programme. People literally believe this stuff, and we have to squash it… but you have to make a judgement call on who to respond to and who to ignore.

Offcom have been tracking how much fake news people think they have been exposed to about the virus. It may be because of recent action taken by Facebook and Twitter, but it has roughly halved over the course of the pandemic. 

So maybe we are finally waking up to doing something about it. But it’s pretty endemic and pretty unpleasant. 

“There’s the group who are anti-vax. But there’s another group - the ‘cautious COVIDs’ - particularly amongst the Millennials, who we will need to convince to take the vaccine” Jenny Ousbey, OVID Health

Jenny Ousbey, OVID Health

You have to dig down really hard before you find the Cautious COVIDs. They do not feel confident in terms of the uptake of a COVID vaccine. 

But they are not going to be posting content on social media about their uncertainties around safety and the speed the vaccine is coming to market. 

This is the group that, as comms professionals, we are going to have to seek out. And if I was in government this is the group I would be worrying about. 

In six months or 18 months time we are going to need them to take the vaccine. And it’s going to take that amount of time to convince them to do it.”

“Our live broadcasts by nurses are a brilliant way of getting our message in front of people’s faces before they see the misinformation that’s floating around.” Dan Papworth-Smyth, Breast Cancer Now

Dan Papworth-Smyth, Breast Cancer Now

For us combating harmful effects is about how do we reach those people who are not looking out for this information. How do we get to them before they see something else. 

We do a lot of work with live content as we know it spreads faster than pre-recorded content. In that way we hope to ‘outrun’ the fake news. 

We do live Facebook broadcasts with our nurses where we take people’s questions and try and be open and transparent and an available source where they can ask anything.”

How can social media help promote better understanding of the role of social care?

“We need to go back to the idea of having a grown-up conversation with the public” Jenny Ousbey, OVID Health

Jenny Ousbey, OVID Health 

There’s a fundamental tension between politically what can be done in social care and what is happening. 

In the first wave we’ve seen this huge rise in interest in social care and understanding. I agree this was largely focused on the elderly population but that’s shifting. 

From a policy perspective the problem with communication in social care it can often come down to assets and selling your home to pay for care.

We need to go back to the idea of having a grown-up conversation with the public, whether that’s about the pandemic or whether it’s about social care. 

“The challenge with social care is the level of complexity…. The public has no idea how it's organised until they need it and it becomes a crisis purchase” Ben Page, Ipsos MORI

Ben Page, Ipsos MORI  

Social media can play a hugely important role in promoting understanding.  But it is much maligned.

Seventy-eight per cent of people would like to see social media more tightly regulated…  Yet there are so many brilliant examples of connection and support we can build on. 

But when it comes to social care I don’t think social media on its own is going to fix it. The system is so arcane and complex… that can only be resolved when the Department of Health takes it over from local government (which for all sorts of reasons I think is a terrible idea – unless they are willing to fund it properly, which is the gazillion dollar question).

The other challenge with it is, partly because of some of the media coverage, when you ask people who handled the pandemic best, and worst, it’s care homes who are blamed the most. Even though some of the things that went on in the first lockdown were not their fault. 

Predications for the future 

Jenny Ousbey 

I can think of many things that might fill the void on social media once we’ve moved on from where we are now… 

I can forsee a coronavirus pandemic inquiry that will go on for a long time and cost a lot of money. 

I think the obesity crisis will become the next big public health challenge. And of course vaccines: now the world has seen the effect of a pandemic, vaccines will again come to the fore.”

Dan Papworth-Smyth

For me the void will be filled by what should have been talked about over the last six months to a year. 

So it’s these huge backlogs of people who haven’t been receiving treatment or getting the scans they need. We will have to make up for lost time… we’ve lost funding for our labs. But people are waiting on us for life-saving treatment. So we can’t slow down – we have to get back to where we should be. 

Ben Page

The vast majority of what people tweet about is not worthy stuff, it’s about celebrity. Although Greta Thunberg did get more searches than Beyonce on Google search last year. 

There are so many challenges facing the country. Even if the virus disappeared tomorrow, we would still have issues like: our ageing population, and how are we going to fund our public services,  and the NHS?  And of course social care funding, the house-building crisis… we will have plenty to keep us busy I’m afraid.

And then the world has a way of bringing up something new for us to worry about too.