Seven Strategies for Regaining Trust in Public Health Messaging

You don’t need the studies and reports to know that trust in health-related information coming from public institutions has eroded in recent years. The decline in confidence has occurred for a number of reasons — misinformation spread through social media, inaccurate and confusing information from government agencies during the pandemic, and elected officials politicizing public health information.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has acknowledged that trust in public health institutions has deteriorated in recent years. In a speech last spring she said: “Trust in institutions, such as government or media or business, has been eroding in recent years. This lack of trust has led to polarization and division and has made it harder to solve important issues facing our world.”

Although the job of delivering public health information has gotten more difficult, there are strategies that can bolster confidence in your organization and increase the likelihood your messaging will be deemed reliable and trustworthy.

While you might not think of your health department or organization as a brand like Chevrolet, McDonald’s or Starbucks, every organization is a brand. To think and act like a brand, you need to focus first on your organization’s core mission and values. Does the public know what your mission and goals are? Consider your primary services and products. How does the public perceive them? Do they recognize the organization’s strengths? Do they understand what makes the organization unique? Are there areas of perceived weakness that need to be addressed?

Everyone inside the organization should understand the brand’s mission and goals. Every constituent interaction is an element of your brand. Communications efforts need to embrace the mission and goals with consistent, credible and believable messaging. Consistency helps build credibility and create brand integrity, which leads to trust.

Public communications efforts can go off the rails, or at best be marginally effective, without adequate research. Those toiling in the field may forget that public opinion and understanding of an issue can change and evolve – sometimes rapidly – influenced by inaccurate reporting or a viral social media post. Understanding what your audience perceives and why and who they trust to give them information is critical in crafting public awareness efforts that resonate.

When conducting research, make sure your respondents mirror the populations you are trying to reach. Your constituents will help guide you if you ask their opinion, and they will appreciate the opportunity to contribute. And remember, surveying your audience is a snapshot in time, not a one and done proposition. People hear and read things that can change their minds and impact what they believe. It’s important to resurvey and re-evaluate at regular intervals to ensure you know where your audience stands.

Engaging trusted community leaders and experts to disseminate critical information is an effective strategy. Trusted sources could include local health officers, hospital or healthcare executives, university presidents, media and sports personalities or faith-based leaders.

If you are unsure who those leaders might be for your organization, use focus groups or surveys to determine which potential spokespeople are deemed likeable, relatable and trustworthy. Using the wrong spokesperson to deliver critical information can have the opposite effect as intended.

Testing the effectiveness of potential messengers is an important step. This process should begin early, not when your organization is dealing with a crisis. Start by making a list of community leaders, stakeholders, subject matter experts and respected employees within your organization. Determine the likeability and credibility of these individuals through surveys and focus groups, then reach out to those who come out on top.

Let your top candidates know they are trusted by the public and ask whether they would serve as spokespeople when appropriate. Offer media training on handling press conferences and interviews to help get them prepared. By developing and maintaining a solid group of spokespeople, you can hit the ground running when needed.

People get news and information from a variety of sources and trust some more than others. If your organization has lost credibility, chances are they’ve stopped seeking information from your traditional platforms. The days of them coming to you may be over; you need to proactively go to them.

You’ll need to uncover where they spend their time and which channels they trust. To select the right platforms, employ surveys or focus groups, speak to experts and community leaders familiar with your audience, do online research or hire an experienced media consultant.

If possible, combat misinformation and disinformation on the platforms where it appears. Since much inaccurate information spreads on social media, health organizations should maintain a robust presence on the same channels. Back up your accurate information with data, statistics, research and study results whenever possible. If available, refute misinformation with hard facts from a credible third party.

Regarding frequency, it takes multiple engagements to effectively disseminate information. And those who are skeptical of your organization or who have internalized conflicting information will require even more repetition and engagement.

Despite claims of “fake news” and the perception by some that the news media has lost credibility, traditional news outlets still hold considerable sway and can get critical information in front of a wide audience. A recent Pew Research Center study showed confidence in traditional news outlets, particularly local news, remains relatively high compared to other sources, such as social media. A poll by The Economist/YouGov asking Americans how much they trusted 56 prominent media organizations, including broadcast, digital, print, and social media, found that many traditional news outlets came out on top for trustworthiness.

You can begin by developing relationships with local news reporters who cover healthcare. If you establish collaborative relationships ahead of time, you can turn to these sources when important health news is breaking.

Forming relationships requires more than putting out press releases. Make direct pitches to reporters, keeping the pitch short, focused on the most important facts and recent developments and include data, study results or statistics to back up the information.

Personal interaction can build rapport and lead to a greater level of trust. Rather than relying solely on one-way communication, open a two-way dialogue. Take your messages to places where people live, work, pray and play. Allow your key audiences to tell you how they feel about a specific topic or issue.

Through town hall meetings you can directly address questions and concerns and clarify points in real time. Organizing interactive meetings demonstrates your commitment to transparency, sharing information and hearing from constituents. Town halls provide a great opportunity to take quick informal polls or audience surveys. Every meeting should feature adequate time for questions and answers, reinforcing you care about your constituents’ point of view.

During the COVID pandemic, local and state health departments effectively used door-to-door canvassing and the deployment of a sound truck to engage audiences in targeted zip codes. These techniques were particularly useful with hard-to-reach segments of the population and in overcoming language barriers.

Every organization has a website; however, not all think of it as the central nervous system of their brand. Maintaining an up-to-date, easy-to-navigate and engaging website is essential to rebuilding trust with your constituents. You can create topic-specific websites for issues that require ongoing delivery of information over an extended period of time. Consider using constructive dialogue from your own social media accounts to mine trending content and migrate it to your website.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide a great example of an effective website strategy. Despite vast amounts of content, their websites are user friendly and enhance the NIH brand by prioritizing relatable and engaging information.

In Conclusion

Once lost, it’s not easy to regain credibility. However, if the goal is to reconnect with your audience and restore their trust, you’ll have to go the extra mile. Following a comprehensive, well-executed plan over time will help win them back. It won’t happen overnight, and you’ll need to stick with it. Even the best plans for rebuilding a brand will take 12 to 18 months to see results.

Deidre McCabe

Communications Strategist

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