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Communicating Public Health: Performance of public health messages and the impact of emerging issues

16th September 2020

Our Communicating Public Health series provides a window into the rich conversation that took place online during the national lockdown in the UK, when almost half of the British public (47%) reported spending more time on social media. Conducting research on behalf of Future Care Capital, Ipsos MORI analysed some 3,692,129 online posts,  from February through to June 2020, using a combination of automated machine-led analysis, manual coding, statistical modelling and qualitative investigation.

This, the second of four publications, looks at the performance of public health messages and the impact of emerging issues.

Key findings:

  • Throughout the pandemic, the topics discussed in the highest volumes on social media were those that affected the vast majority of the general public. These included lockdown guidelines, testing and vaccines and the recovery strategy.
  • However, topics that affected subsets of the population – including quarantine guidelines, shielding guidelines and social care – were less evident. Together, these findings imply that over-reliance on social media to communicate public health messages leads to a risk that important messages, that affect a subset of the population, get overwhelmed by mass advice.
  • Events also emerged from the analysis that were outside control of the government. For example, the Prime Minister’s admittance to hospital, and the reports that Dominic Cummings had breached lockdown regulations. In these cases, the data suggests that social media posts from mainstream media outlets were key in driving the conversation.
  • Public health messaging related to hand hygiene and hand washing appears to have been the most successful over the course of the pandemic. It secured significant attention on social media, and received a positive reception, with endorsement and reinforcement from a range of popular figures to help encourage improved public behaviour.
  • In contrast, the announcement to ‘Stay Alert’ receives one of the most negative reviews. The main request to ‘stay alert’ resulted in confusion and ridicule, and interest in this behaviour was not sustained over time.
  • Overall, the performance of public health messaging declines over the course of the pandemic. This is evident in greater levels of discomfort and confusion, and lower levels of adherence to messages to ‘stay alert’, wear facemasks, and steps to ease lockdown. This is further supported in survey research among the wider public, which shows a greater level of clarity in messaging on infection prevention than returning steps to ease lockdown.
“The efficacy of public health messages has, perhaps, never been more important than it is now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all reliant upon clear instructions, informed by expert opinion, to guide us in modifying our behaviour to safeguard ourselves and one another in the absence of an effective vaccine. This is, by no means, straightforward." Annemarie Naylor MBE, Director of Policy and Strategy
  • Communicating Public Health - Report 2 Performance of public health messages and the impact of emerging issues
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