Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have been divided along party lines about how serious the virus is and what steps should be taken to contain it. The way city leaders communicate with residents matters, and we certainly see that in communications about the pandemic.
A recent report, “Changing the COVID Conversation,” reveals language that political and health leaders can use to reach all audiences, build trust in public health measures, and save lives. The report by the de Beaumont Foundation, an organization that works to improve public health, is based on a poll conducted late last year by communication professional Frank Luntz. A separate poll provides insights on communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Based on our findings, our leaders need to remove politics and partisanship from their messaging and give Americans a better reason to comply other than because it’s good for them,” says Luntz. “They must remind people that it’s also good for the people they love and will speed up the return to a strong economy and a normal life.”
The poll reflects the views of 1,100 respondents, including an oversample of 300 African Americans. It highlights how much of the messaging and language being used by public health experts, as well as state, local, and federal officials, is missing the mark — and failing to motivate millions of Americans to get behind life-saving public health precautions, such as masking, testing, social distancing, and vaccinations.
- Political and health leaders need to focus on the benefits of success, not just the consequences of failure.
- Public health leaders must make the case that the science about steps that can prevent the spread of COVID-19 is settled. When asked what would make them not take precautions like mask wearing, more than half of respondents selected the response, “The jury is still out on how we should best combat the virus, as health recommendations have changed over time.”
- It will be most effective to use scientists and medical and public health leaders, rather than politicians, as spokespeople for pandemic messages.
- Public health and the economy cannot be separated. Leaders need to emphasize that doing the right thing now means a faster economic recovery.
- Vaccine hesitancy is real. Among all respondents, 10% said, “I would never take the vaccine for COVID-19” — compared with 6% of Democrats, 13% of Republicans, and 19% of African Americans. Only 4% of African Americans said they would take the vaccine “without hesitation,” compared with 16% of the national total, 15% of Democrats, and 16% of Republicans.
Language to reset the conversation
This poll highlights the need to change our pandemic language.
- Forty-nine percent of Americans consider a “pandemic” more “significant, serious, and scary” than “COVID-19” (39%) or “the coronavirus” (13%).
- Respondents had a much more positive reaction to “a stay-at-home order” than a “lockdown” or “aggressive restrictions.”
- Saying that policies to combat the pandemic are “factbased” is more effective than saying they’re based on “science,” “data,” or “medicine.”
- Americans have a more positive reaction when rules and regulations to address COVID-19 are called “protocols” rather than “mandates,” “directives,” “controls,” or “orders.”
- More than 4 in 5 respondents prefer “face masks” over “facial coverings.”
Communicating about vaccines
The findings of another national poll, “The Language of Vaccine Acceptance,” reveal the need for political and health leaders to adjust their messaging to improve confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.
Here are some communication tips:
- Tailor your message for your audience. Americans’ perceptions about vaccines and their safety differ by political party, race, age, and geography.
- Explain the benefits of getting vaccinated, not just the consequences of not doing it. Say, “Getting the vaccine will keep you and your family safe,” rather than calling it “the right thing to do.” Focus on the need to return to normal and reopen the economy.
- Talk about the people behind the vaccine. Refer to the scientists, the health and medical experts, and the researchers — not the science, health, and pharmaceutical companies.
- Avoid judgmental language when talking about or to people who are concerned. Acknowledge their concern and offer to answer their questions.
- Use (and repeat) the word “every” to explain the vaccine development process. For example: “Every study, every phase, and every trial was reviewed by the FDA and a safety board.”
This is adapted from an article on the de Beaumont Foundation website, and used with permission. Learn more about the studies and get tip sheets at www.debeaumont.org/changing-the-covid-conversation.