Carnegie Mellon University
October 07, 2021

Fischhoff authors piece on the Covid communication breakdown

In a recently published article in Foreign Affairs, Engineering and Public Policy Howard Heinz University Professor Baruch Fischhoff discusses the Covid communication breakdown and how to fix public health messaging.

On paper, the U.S. federal government was well prepared for COVID-19. But, by any measure, though, the federal government botched its response to COVID-19. It mobilized slowly for a disease that was spreading rapidly. The logistical damage was compounded by singularly inept communication. Even when officials made sound decisions, they often undercut themselves by failing to explain their choices clearly. Their incoherence not only reduced the efficacy of their policies but eroded public trust and confidence, as officials seemingly contradicted themselves or shifted the goalposts.

“As long as federal officials’ communications are mumbled, confusing, contradictory, incomprehensible, sanctimonious, and disrespectful, they will contribute to the failure of bringing the virus under control,” says Fischhoff.

Research finds that people are, indeed, imperfect decision-makers who rely on heuristic rules when they try to make sense of unfamiliar situations. And heuristics can let them down. They may underestimate the exponential growth of pandemic diseases. They may have unwarranted faith in “hygiene theater”: feeling safe, for example, when they see cleaners wiping down surfaces in stores, without realizing that purifying indoor air is more important. They may underestimate the effectiveness of vaccines when they hear about breakthrough cases, without realizing how rare and mild they are.

Fischhoff says that, “the best way to counter pervasive misinformation is with better information.”

Testing messages is key to this process. The simplest testing takes just a little time and humility. Ask a few people from each segment of the target audience to think aloud as they read a draft message. When they are done reading, ask them what was missing, what went without saying, and how much they trusted the source. 

Fischhoff claims that had federal officials communicated better, they might have changed the course of the pandemic. 

To learn more, read the full article.