Six months into Covid-19, the world is at a confliction point between returning to “normal” and understanding the “new normal.” Despite some progress made, containing the pandemic remains a challenge, as does aligning on approaches to safely return to and reopen public settings. This conflict is one between public health and public policy, matters that should be hand-in-hand and data-driven yet that are being further wedged apart by the politicization of information.
Perhaps stemming from another pandemic that changed the course of history, in 1918, public health initiatives and government-driven messaging have typically been in lockstep – examples from recent years range for the US’s 2003 PEPFAR created to address HIV/AIDS to global, government-backed policies in 2014-2015 to contain the outbreak of Ebola.
The findings of Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer Special Report: Workplace Trust and the Coronavirus illustrate some of these conflicts between public health and public policy. Global data show most feel unsafe returning to many everyday activities, like taking public transportation or entering restaurants and shops (all activities either managed by or authorized by local governments); yet more than one-third state either they would not or were not sure if they would take a government-approved Covid-19 vaccine – the activity health authorities and governments alike have said is essential in safely returning to normal, upon vaccine approval. And when looking at the workplace, while 70% of employees working remotely say that companies have communicated return to the office plans effectively, only 51% of employees, overall, trust that corporate offices are actually safe environments.
The messaging mismatch between public health and public policy must be addressed. Trust is the key here to impactful change. It is critical to both addressing concerns about the virus as well as reinforcing the behavior changes needed to combat it. But trust must be earned – it cannot be ordered.
These conflicting findings across populations may be because the general public is currently more focused on health concerns than health solutions. This is understandable; we are sharing the experience of living in a real-life science experiment. New Covid-19 findings are uncovered, announced and sometimes retracted all within the same week, a cycle of information that is likely unnerving even to those knowledgeable of the scientific process.
In previous special reports of the Trust Barometer fielded this year, Edelman found people need to hear information multiple times and from multiple sources to believe it is true. The rapid pace of discovery of new information about both Covid-19 as well as measures to mitigate it is promising. Yet a biproduct may be that information is evolving too quickly for the consistent, coordinated delivery needed for the public to trust it.
The onus of addressing this info-demic is distributed across the four institutions Edelman has studied for 20 years – government, business, NGOs and media. Data must be at the center of all public health decisions, and each institution is responsible for the delivery of this essential information in complementary ways: government must collect and publicize, not politicize, data; business must amplify data, using it as the rationale for any reopening plans; media must take the time needed to contextualize data; NGOs must contribute and collaborate with expert voices. All institutions must be specific and proactive in sharing what they are doing, and they must make data readily and easily available to the public.
For businesses, showing and not just telling how public health data is driving their policy decisions will be essential for trust, especially as 68% globally are concerned about a second wave of the virus. This fear of future outbreaks may be mitigated by demonstrating agile business policies and clearly communicating them. While pivoting quickly, companies must also reinforce the data and experts behind their decisions. For example, employees should be guaranteed that multiple precautions in accord with the guidance of health authorities, local government and public officials are being followed in return to office plans.
Finally, there must be a concerted effort across institutions to reassure the public about vaccine safety. This requires both strong science and trustworthy communications. This latest report found people are unsure which sources to trust for Covid-19 information, yet they do trust their healthcare providers on this topic. Nearly three-fourths globally said they only need to hear information about the pandemic from their doctor once or twice to believe it is true, yet currently only 21% said they get most of their information this way. Additionally, only 36% said they get this information from national health authorities. To build trust in a vaccine and the science behind it, there is a clear need to amplify local expert voices along with national.
Where public policy is lacking, or worse, failing, business can and must step in via their private policies. This is an opportunity, as Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams describes, for a Chief Public Health Officer at every company. See Walmart’s lead on mandating masks be worn in their stores across the U.S., regardless of local ordinance, and the number of retailers that quickly followed suit. This move protects employees and the general public, and along with it businesses’ bottom line. A healthy economy requires a healthy population.
To create wide-spread adoption of the public health policies and behaviors needed to live our “new normal” safely, bottom-up, grassroots campaigns must be activated in concert with institutions’ top-down approach. Trust is local. Our lenses are informed by our own personal circumstances and by what is happening around us. Echoing Richard, while gains in trust may be incremental in these uncertain times, trust will still make all the difference.
Kirsty Graham is CEO of Edelman Public Affairs.
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