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Effective communication is critical during emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak

Mixed messaging from the CDC and the White House makes it hard for people to know what to trust

US-POLITICS-PENCE-CORONAVIRUS Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

During an ongoing crisis, the way that experts, officials, and leaders talk with the public matters. People rely on information from those groups to understand an unfolding event and to make decisions about what they should do in response. When that communication is done well, it helps manage people’s expectations and fears, and makes it more likely that they’ll follow future instructions from officials during the crisis. If it’s done poorly, though, it can undermine trust in the institutions leading an emergency response.

As outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have progressed in the US and around the world, officials have demonstrated both good and bad risk communication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, has said for weeks that the situation was changing quickly and that there are a lot of unknowns. That’s in line with principles of risk communication and helps manage expectations, says Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health & Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and former director of media relations at CDC.

On the other hand, President Trump has made inaccurate and misleading statements that contradict evidence presented by public health experts, including about the timelines for vaccine development. That creates confusion and sows mistrust in ongoing response efforts.

The Verge spoke to Nowak about best practices in crisis communication and why it matters.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What should experts and officials try to do when they’re talking with the public?

Ideally, what you want to do if you’re one of the leaders is setting and trying to manage people’s expectations. People are often focused so much on trying to get information out and educate people, and it’s easy to lose track of the overall purpose — which should be to set, guide, and manage expectations.

You have to help people understand what’s about to unfold. You have to give people an understanding of what government agencies and health care providers will be doing. And you have to help people — not just the public, but the media, health care providers, and others — to understand that there’s a lot of uncertainty. That uncertainty is going to play out in many different ways as things unfold. Guidelines could change quickly.

If you set expectations that things will go smoothly and easily, you will probably find that you won’t be able to meet that expectation. And people will then think that you’re not very competent or trustworthy.

How well are officials doing that during this outbreak?

There are examples of both the good and the bad. One challenge is that, early on, there have been mixed messages from government officials in the US and around the world about what’s happening, and the level of threat the virus poses. There’s probably not been enough articulation of why public health officials are concerned.

Some things the CDC has been doing have been terrific. They’re trying to apply good principles. They’re expressing empathy and concern, and they’re pointing out that there is a lot of uncertainty and that they were being careful about the information they give as a result. We saw them foreshadowing things that were likely to happen, like cases in many places through the US, which has since happened.

Some statements from President Trump and other political figures have minimized and sometimes contradicted the CDC. What impact does that have?

It makes public health officials’ jobs harder when you have some people talking about guidance and recommendations, and others suggesting maybe those things aren’t as important. It causes confusion for people trying to make sense of the threat posed.

What else can that mixed messaging do?

Mixed messaging can be a problem because it communicates that people who are providing guidance aren’t on the same page. If there are disagreements, and the public hears different messages, it can be hard to know which point of view should be weighted more heavily and what actions and recommendations should be followed.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the novel coronavirus, and the situation is constantly changing. How does that affect communication?

This is a complicated situation. We have a range of the severity of illness [ed. note: around 85 percent of people infected have mild symptoms, but around 15 percent get severely ill]. That does make it hard to communicate threat. And the threat and risk varies widely depending on who and where you are. Different places will be affected differently, and they’re likely to take different courses of action.

This is a very fluid situation, and the one thing you want to do right now is communicate that. A lot of new information is being gained very quickly.