MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — In February, Gov. Tony Evers issued a statement on a “new disease threat” — the first case of COVID-19 reported in the state of Wisconsin.

More than nine months later, Evers and other officials have been tasked with communicating constantly about coronavirus. But what makes for effective messaging in the midst of a pandemic and an overwhelming flow of information?

Kaiping Chen, an assistant professor of life science communications at UW-Madison, led a study analyzing more than 30,000 survey responses from Wisconsinites about social distancing measures. With a better understanding of how people think about the pandemic, she says, we can also gain some valuable lessons on how to be better at talking about COVID-19.

“There are several key messages, which I think are very interesting, in terms of, how do the health communicators talk to the people?” Chen says. “What are some of the ways we need to be thoughtful when we design those message campaigns?”


Understand the many layers of the COVID-19 crisis

“We want to see our small businesses succeed — our favorite restaurants and bars thriving again — but that won’t happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen until everyone starts taking this pandemic seriously.” (Evers, at an Oct. 20 briefing)

The coronavirus pandemic is what communicators call a “wicked problem,” Chen says — one that involves many complex factors and doesn’t have a clear solution.

COVID-19 has become more than just a health issue, she points out. It’s also tied up with questions of economics, mental health, culture, and even politics. So, communication about the pandemic has to also deal with those different factors.

“When you are delivering a message to try to convince people to take those precautionary actions, you want to design your message as, it's going to help them in multiple ways,” Chen says. “It's not just a single message in a single layer.”

In recent DHS briefings, Evers has often stressed that containing the virus is key to getting the economy to bounce back, addressing a false dichotomy between jobs and public health.

Officials and other communicators are also having to deal with the politicization of the pandemic and tons of online misinformation, Chen says. With all of these factors in play, she says it’s especially important to be in touch with the public to understand what they’re going through, instead of only doling out information in a top-down way. 


Stress the personal effects

“It’s not happening someplace else, or to somebody else. It’s here.” (Evers, at a Nov. 4 briefing)

In the study, Chen’s team found that COVID-19 messaging worked better when it hit closer to home.

To really guide their behavior, people wanted to know how many infections were in their neighborhood, not just in the entire state or country. They didn’t want to hear broad statements; they wanted to know how they could stay safe while still balancing all the other complicated factors in their lives.

“Tell me, how can I keep social distancing, but still I can maintain my mental health, still do work from my home even though I have children?” Chen says. “It needs to be very relevant to people’s lives, rather than talking about those big theories.”

Officials have taken to stressing the human impacts of COVID-19 beyond the numbers. The DHS briefings have included messages from nurses and healthcare workers — whom Evers says are working “long, frankly emotionally exhausting hours” — pleading with the public to stop the spread. 

Chen says it can also be valuable to use different approaches to help communicate with different groups — especially in a place like Wisconsin, which “represents a lot of the tensions and complexities that have arisen from increasing partisan polarization and urban-rural tensions,” she and her co-authors write.

The actual guidance of what people need to do should stay the same, she stresses. Delivering that information in more specific ways, though, can help reach people from various communities, demographics, and political viewpoints.

“The messages need to be consistent,” Chen says. “But still, particularly in our swing state and also on the national level, we need to tailor the message design to different groups.”


Find some hopeful framing

“Make no mistake, folks. Every time you choose to stay home; every time you decline a party invitation; every time you get takeout instead of dining in; and every time you make another sacrifice, after months of sacrifices, you help stop the spread.” (Evers, at an Oct. 30 briefing)

The pandemic is, of course, a serious crisis, as officials have expressed many times over. When it comes to communicating about it, though, it’s helpful to offer a break from the doom and gloom, Chen says.

In the study, she and her team recommend framing public health measures in a positive way. Even small changes — like replacing the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing,” to show that people can stay connected with loved ones — can help add some more positivity.

When asked about the benefits of social distancing measures, many people talked about keeping themselves, their families, and their communities healthy. Some also brought up having extra time to work on self-improvement efforts: One participant said they’d “catch up on all the homework I’m behind on, grow closer to God, read some books I’ve been wanting to, and have the opportunity to play guitar more.”

Emphasizing these types of positive outcomes, instead of just the daunting numbers or abstract threats, can also be persuasive, Chen says.

“In the pandemic, you want to give people hope,” she says. “Of course, you need to attend to the science. But this positive, hopeful framing is also very important.”


Keep evolving

“We’re in a much worse place now than we were in March or April. Now is the time for all of us to double down and do our part.” (DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, at an Oct. 20 briefing)

Chen and her co-authors found that, even over the course of just two weeks in the spring, people’s responses about COVID-19 shifted.  

Near the beginning, when asked about barriers to sticking with social distancing guidance, respondents were more likely to talk about practical challenges: One person listed “groceries, doctor’s appointments, and necessary trips out for life-sustaining items.”

Soon after, though, more people were also talking about the mental health challenges of staying isolated from others. “Seeing my daughter depressed is bad for my well being,” one person wrote. “The end of social distancing is not in sight so it’s demoralizing,” another replied.

Months later, with a much higher level of COVID-19 spread and a contentious election season added on top, the situation in Wisconsin has continued to change. 

Much of the concrete guidance from the state’s officials has remained the same since early on in the pandemic: Stay home whenever possible, wear masks, wash your hands. The language describing the pandemic has escalated, though, as the virus has rapidly surged, with officials in recent months talking about COVID-19 as an “urgent crisis,” “absolutely serious,” an “emergency,” and an “imminent risk.”

Being responsive to changing situations — and changing public opinions — is important for talking about a public health effectively, Chen says. And staying attuned to the community’s needs, instead of making public health messaging a one-way street, will have value even beyond our current crisis, she predicts. 

“We want to think long-term, post-pandemic,” Chen says. “There are a lot of things people need to heal, to recover. We’re not just alleviating the pandemic — we need to think about what's going to be next.”