Science must win the COVID-19 info war (and it can)

Message received: Concise and effective communication is key to ending the pandemic -- and all professional communicators must get on board, says David Chauvin.

As schools throughout the country start the school year – whether it’s 100 percent in-person, 100 percent remote or a hybrid of both – one thing is clear: This school year is going to look very different.

While parents, students, teachers and administrators determine what the new normal will look like for this school year, the big-picture question remains: How long will this last?

Unfortunately, the most common answers to this question are other questions: When will a vaccine be ready? Will it be effective?

With the race for a vaccine expediting clinical trials around the world, it’s more important than ever for scientists, clinicians and policymakers to communicate the significance, the safety and the efficacy of vaccines to help ease the public fears, dispel misconceptions and stop the spread of misinformation.

Despite vaccination being a proven, effective public health intervention, so-called “vaccine hesitancy” is one of the World Health Organization’s 10 threats to global health, driven mainly by misinformation, propaganda and ineffective communication by the medical community. When a COVID-19 vaccine is ready to be administered, it will enter a world that is already skeptical of established vaccinations.

A recent study on progress toward measles elimination found that the most reported measles cases in a single year was in 2019, with 20,062 – even though the measles vaccine is estimated to have saved more than 20 million lives between 2000 and 2015 alone, and has been effectively administered for more than 60 years.

David Chauvin: Just the facts.

Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine are being accelerated and regulations are being skipped to get a vaccine to market. Both augment people’s fears and uneasiness. In fact, another recent survey showed that only two-thirds of Americans would accept a novel coronavirus vaccine; experts say 70 to 90 percent of the U.S. population would need to be vaccinated to effectively stop the virus’ spread.

I will never claim to be a medical expert. And I share the fears and concerns that many people have over a hastily developed solution to a public-health crisis. As a communications professional, an employer, a husband and a father, I implore the medical community to take control of the message and make sure the public is as informed as possible. This way, the public can weed out the nonsense of those looking to spread propaganda and conspiracy theories.

It starts with good communication strategy – something proven to be more necessary than ever, as every area of society has been affected by the coronavirus. In the modern digital world, this is a challenge that requires a global, interdisciplinary approach employing evidence-based communication strategies.

Scientists, doctors, public-health experts and policymakers need to be on the front lines, every day, providing updates and perspective. The key is packaging and presenting this information in a way that the public can best access it.

In the past, a profound scientific discovery would be published in a trade-focused medical journal, then covered by some public-facing news organization. Today, this game of telephone only leads to more bias and misinterpretation.

Medical journals publish a wealth of science to counteract misinformation, but this information isn’t reaching the right audience. Medical journals are created for medical professionals; this type of information needs to reach the general public on their terms. When this information is not in the public sphere, pundits become the voice of reason by default. That is dangerous.

The medical community should come together and create a central hub of information that can be shared and verified. It should be actively fact-checking and publicly exposing lies and falsehoods. It needs to be where the people are.

Scientists and clinicians are the experts and need to be looked at as such. To effectively address misinformation and public concerns, the medical community needs to adapt the way it communicates to the public by matching the way people communicate with each other.

Fact-checking initiatives should be supported and encouraged by policymakers and topic experts. Scientific articles on vaccine safety should be summarized in accessible formats, such as infographics and videos, and shared on social media platforms.

I also implore news organizations and publishers to tighten their editorial policies, critical to counteracting the world’s paralyzing infodemic. Over-interpretation of the significance of data and over-emphasizing skeptical sentiments to support a “fair reporting structure” is dangerous and can be easily co-opted by nefarious groups to spread misinformation.

It’s important to note that no one has the silver-bullet right answer. When a vaccine is ready, people need to be informed by medical experts and not consumed by misinterpretation and angst. We have enough to worry about.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of ZE Creative Communications.


1 Comment on "Science must win the COVID-19 info war (and it can)"

  1. Mark J. Grossman | August 17, 2020 at 7:11 AM |

    Excellent analysis by David Chauvin. I think the key sentence is, “Scientists and clinicians are the experts and need to be looked at as such.” Unfortunately, the president and his enablers look at the experts with disdain. I’m afraid that until this changes, we will continue to be “…consumed by misinterpretation and angst.”

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