COVID-19 was the largest and deadliest public health emergency in U.S. history. Of the more than 6.8 million people worldwide who lost their lives to the virus, more than 1.1 million were American, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker.
Now the crisis is, symbolically, over. On May 5, the World Health Organization said the COVID emergency had ended, three years after declaring it a pandemic. A week later, the Biden administration let its national emergency and public health emergency declarations on COVID expire, meaning less funding for testing, vaccines and hospital care, as well as a loss of health coverage for potentially millions of uninsured.
Many people would like to put the pandemic behind them. But research shows that the likelihood of another pandemic in the near future is growing, due to factors like climate change, which means lessons learned from communicating about the crisis can’t be forgotten.
Healthcare communications executives from in-house departments, agencies and medical organizations share their biggest takeaways.
The audience is truly global
Whether it’s a major employer drawing up a work-from-home policy or a pharmaceutical giant discussing the quest to develop a vaccine, everyone was interested in what was being done to protect them and their loved ones during the pandemic.
Jacob Lund, head of global media relations at AstraZeneca, says “there were multiple lessons. Perhaps the biggest one was to realize that every single citizen of the world was interested in what we had to say, and thus we had to adapt and simplify how we communicated.”
The company set up its comms structure to be more agile and to make sure it “had appropriate access to senior leaders and were properly resourced around the world for effective 24/7 communications,” adds Lund. “Another thing that became clear was that although the pandemic was a global crisis, most politicians, for obvious reasons, continued to have a local focus.”
Messaging needs to be diverse
The pandemic starkly illustrated health inequities. While messaging was aimed at the masses, experts say in the unfortunate event of another pandemic, it needs to be more inclusive.
“People experience health information and crisis differently,” says Kristin Cahill, global CEO of GCI Group. “Many organizations and brands were ill-prepared to effectively engage diverse audiences about their health. We have learned the importance of cultural resonance and customization of messages and strategies that tap into credible, community-based voices.”
Amanda Yarnell, senior director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, concurs that the pandemic was a huge learning curve.
“We can’t sacrifice equity in the name of efficiency,” she says. “To ensure we engage everyone we need to engage, we need to involve more voices — and more diverse voices — as we shape communications and messaging. Don’t tell people what we think they need to know. Listen to what information they need and how they want to get it.”
Depending on the stage of the pandemic and the audience, different individuals and organizations became the most trusted public advisors.
“Understanding who your stakeholders perceive as trusted advisors was the biggest communications lesson,” says Shauna Keough, president of U.S. PR at Syneos Health. “For some, that trust rested with credible experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. For others, it was their personal circle of influence. And as time went on, we saw unprecedented trust placed in pharmaceutical companies and the understanding of what a vaccine would mean in terms of bringing the pandemic to an end.”
“It was these voices of influence that steered individual beliefs, decision-making, action and eventually their pandemic mindset,” she says. “While, in the beginning, comms professionals around the world worked to ensure the most trustworthy voices were steadfast and grounded, the ever-changing environment and the heightened expectations around communications and transparency, led to a shift in the trust paradigm with more and more people leaning into their personal circles. The shift not only made us relook at our communications approach, but it made us rethink the way we define influence.”
It isn’t a sprint
In the pandemic’s initial days, widespread belief was that the crisis might last a few weeks or, at worst, a few months. It seemed unimaginable for it to last multiple years, and include social distancing, mask wearing and lockdowns.
COVID comms task forces were assembled with a sprint in mind. That led to employee burnout in some cases.
“Operationally, on our side, we will be prepared to quickly set up a team that is able not only to sprint, but also able to run the marathon,” says Lund.
Organizations that early on said one thing, like wearing masks wasn’t necessary, only to change their tune later because of better understanding of the virus, hurt their credibility, despite being well-meaning at the time.
“One big thing we learned was the importance of helping people understand the evolving nature of the scientific process during a public health crisis,” says Yarnell. “Especially with a brand-new threat like COVID-19, public health recommendations will evolve with our understanding of the threat. We need to get used to talking about complexity and uncertainty: ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, and here’s what we’re doing to find out.’”
Rodrigo Sierra, CCO and SVP at the American Medical Association, says the use of certain phrases are critical to helping audiences understand the evolving nature of a virus.
“While public health officials, medical experts and scientists work hard to provide accurate information, we can help by sometimes adding phrases like, ‘This is a dynamic and changing situation and this information is based on what we know now. It may change,’” he says.
“Health officials need to be extremely clear about what we don’t know, managing expectations that future guidance may change. Misinformation and frustration thrived on perceived flip-flopping on public health guidance,” adds Karen O’Malley, MD of public affairs at M Booth Health. “Training and routinely retraining key spokespeople to ensure they’re delivering consistent messages, while being transparent as possible, is essential.”
Misinformation comes fast and furious
Getting a COVID vaccine could leave women unable to have children! Wearing a face mask cuts how much oxygen you can breathe in! COVID-19 is a giant hoax!
Rumors and panic ran rampant during the pandemic and were fueled by social media.
“At the AMA, we decided it was vital to lift our public health voice above the cacophony of the pandemic’s early days,” says Sierra. “Throughout the pandemic, it was essential for us to be quick, direct and specific in addressing misinformation, disinformation and false claims that were endangering lives.”
There was too much messaging at once
From how long someone should isolate at home once they’ve started to experience symptoms to daily infection counts, the public was being asked to consume a lot of information, often all at once.
“Wanting to keep the public informed with the latest data, the approach became sharing everything all at once and, unfortunately, the key messages of distancing, washing your hands, masking and isolation if you were having symptoms were lost in all the noise,” says Gabby Duran, SVP on the health team at Allison+Partners. “It is much easier for people to remember three to four key preventive actions than trying to provide complex material with no call-to-action.”
“This applies to how everyone from federal agencies to local businesses responded to the pandemic,” she adds.
More coordination — and messengers — needed
“No single part will be able to find solutions or communicate in isolation,” says Lund. “In order to be more efficient in the future, governments, academia and industry need to be prepared in advance to work together.”
O’Malley says it also became clear during the pandemic that “the outside influence that friends, family, political leaders, social media influencers and local organizations have on many people’s understanding of public health and guidance – and are often more credible than public health leaders.”
“If, and when another pandemic emerges, traditional experts and ‘thought leaders’ will not be enough to persuade people to protect themselves and the public,” she adds. “Government officials will have to activate a much wider range of messengers who have established credibility in their communities to help spread factional, actionable information at the local level.”
The mental toll is huge and lingers
The powers-that-be may have declared the pandemic over, but the mental toll the virus has left in its wake remains high.
“We are now dealing with the second wave of the pandemic, facing record-high rates of anxiety, depression and mental illness,” says Michelle Baker, EVP and MD of corporate strategic initiatives and public health at Ketchum. “It is important for organizations and communicators to be trauma-informed and bring the same level of empathy and energy to today’s mental health challenges.”
Showing empathy, overall, was a big lesson for leaders.
“Given the collective trauma of the pandemic, organizations learned they need to bring a human-centered lens to the ways they communicate and engage with employees, customers and communities,” adds Baker. “Leading with empathy in crafting workplace policies, community programs and consumer products is essential at times of evolving public health need.
Comms is king
Wendy Lund, chief client officer, health and wellness at WPP, says comms stepped up in a big way during the pandemic, and the leadership position it took within organizations should be remembered.
“Communications was at the forefront during the pandemic, driving forward key policies and business models that now influence the way we work,” says Lund. “The most successful companies are the ones whose communications raise awareness, deliver consistent information, and reassure and guide people on what actions they need to take.”
“The pandemic taught everyone in business the critical importance of timely and informative communications,” she says.
This article originally appeared on PRWeek US.