Communicating Through a Pandemic
A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future
- Available for pre-order on December 9, 2022. Item will ship after December 30, 2022
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Outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics are nothing new and over the course of the last several decades, we have been through numerous ones—Zika, Ebola, H1N1. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has challenged us like never before. During this time, we have struggled to work remotely, to balance work and children’s school schedules, and to manage finances in the face of lost or furloughed jobs. We have worried about our loved ones getting sick and being able to support themselves, and we have faced the loneliness of social distancing.
It has affected us individually and globally—but we have not all experienced this pandemic in exactly the same way. Some communities have been hit harder in terms of sickness and death rates from COVID-19. Many have felt the economic pressures of the pandemic more acutely. Still others have struggled disproportionately with the mental health impacts. Context has mattered in this pandemic.
There is one common thread that runs through all we have experienced though: the role that communication has played in managing this pandemic. Whether we are talking about communication about the virus and mitigation strategies, communication with friends and family, the urgent crisis that is mis- and dis-information, our complex and diffuse media environment, or new workplace communication strategies, communication has been front and center in this pandemic.
The role of communication has been integral to the success and failure of our ability to respond and adapt to and begin to recover from this pandemic—as individuals, communities, and countries, all co-exiting in an interconnected global ecosystem. As a result, issues such as preparedness, misinformation, literacy and comprehension of virus and vaccine science, health equity and mental health have all gained increased awareness during this time.
This guide unpacks the many and varied roles that communication has played over the course of this pandemic in order to help public health professionals, marketers and health communicators, and policymakers alike understand what we have been through, what has worked well, and what we have struggled with—personally in our lives and collectively in our communities—in order to be able to address future pandemics more successfully. It can help us learn from this experience and get better at communicating through pandemics in the future.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction – A.K.A. My Pandemic Story Chapter 2: A Brief History of Pandemic Communication Chapter 3: Dimensions of Crisis and Emergency Response Communication Chapter 4: Pandemic Communication in Our Current Media Communication Environment Chapter 5: Phases of Messaging Chapter 6: Audience Group Experiences Chapter 7: Disparities Already Existed – The Pandemic Just Exacerbated Them Chapter 8: Introducing How Right Now & Other Pandemic Communication Efforts Chapter 9: Building a Team and a Communication Campaign in the Middle of a Global Pandemic Chapter 10: Conclusions, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future
Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia is a seasoned health communications professional with nearly 20 years of experience in health communication program planning, implementation and evaluation, with specific expertise in developing and evaluating digital and social media communication and research. At NORC, she leads the organization's Digital Strategy and Outreach Program Area, where she designs and implements strategies that leverage the power of digital media to influence behavior. In this role, Burke-Garcia develops new digital and mobile data collection methodologies and communication solutions. Most recently, she acted as director for the award-winning How Right Now/Que Hacer Ahora campaign, which is aimed at increasing people’s ability to cope and be resilient amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. She currently leads two grants focused on exploring vaccine hesitancy amongst communities of color which build on her earlier work exploring messages and motivations of vaccine hesitant or refusing social media influencers (findings from which were published in Vaccine in 2020). Over the course of her career, Dr. Burke-Garcia has spearheaded some of the most innovative communication programs and studies on a variety of health topics including designing a targeted social media intervention with mommy bloggers to help social media users lower their risk for breast cancer and leveraging MeetUp groups and the Waze mobile application to move people to action around flu vaccination and HIV testing, respectively. She is the author of the book entitled, Influencing Health: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Online Influencers and has been named to VeryWellHealth.com’s list of 10 Modern Female Innovators Shaking Up Health Care. She holds a PhD in Communication from George Mason University, a Master’s degree in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University, and a joint honours Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies and Humanistic Studies from McGill University.
"When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the word ‘unprecedented’ was thrown around a lot—in
part, as a way to wrap our heads around all the sudden disruptions to our lives. It was also a
convenient and seemingly acceptable way for public health officials, school superintendents,
employers, and city, state, and federal government officials to rationalize any missteps in their
pandemic response and communication along the way.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has been, in a way, unprecedented—in that as Americans,
most of us haven’t been directly impacted to this extent by a public health emergency of this
scale before—it’s far from the first time an infectious disease has disrupted entire societies. But
instead of learning from challenges and successes of the past, the overwhelming sentiment
among policymakers was that we had to start from scratch, and guess our way through the
pandemic as it killed hundreds or thousands of people each day.
But thanks to the work of public health communication experts like Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia, this
won’t be the case when we’re staring down the next pandemic or public health emergency. In
her book, Communicating Through a Pandemic: A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned,
and a Vision for the Future, Burke-Garcia draws on her personal and professional experiences
during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the messaging from previous pandemics, to create a
tool for both understanding and engaging in meaningful and effective public health
communication—particularly in emergency situations.
Burke-Garcia’s accessible writing style and format meets the reader where they are, and
includes definitions of words and phrases that, previous to COVID-19, were typically confined to
a particular profession, but now have gone mainstream. She also clears up concepts crucial to
communication, like "misinformation" and "disinformation," that can be difficult to keep straight,
even for seasoned professionals.
Although it would behoove public health officials and others tasked with public-health-related
messaging to read the book in its entirety, Burke-Garcia structured it in a way that allows
readers to use it as a reference, turning to the chapter they need when they need it, so the
information is easy to locate and immediately digestible.
Another standout aspect of Burke-Garcia’s work is her inclusive approach to public health and
the different types of communication it requires. This ranges from the impact of COVID-19 on
our individual and collective mental health, to a look at social determinants of health for different
racial and ethnic communities, to highlighting the experiences of groups often left out of public
discourse, including people experiencing housing insecurity, migrant and farm workers, and
Communicating Through a Pandemic is an indispensable resource for those involved with public
health decision-making and messaging, and an illuminating read for anyone looking to gain a
deeper understanding of pandemic communication in general, or, more specifically, the
reasoning behind and effects of the messaging we’ve received over the past two years."
Elizabeth Yuko, PhD, bioethicist and Rolling Stone contributing editor
"Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia’s book, Communicating Through a Pandemic: A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future, is one of the best health communication science books I’ve read in years. Her writing is vulnerable, at times, humorous, honest, and most importantly, educative. She shows us the intersection of COVID-19, emotional health, disparities, and inequality, and by creating How Right Now!, she reveals that there is hope, human kindness, and resilience amid a global pandemic. Dr. Burke-Garcia is a masterful storyteller, as she eloquently describes her COVID-19 experience, the dimensions of emergency response, and expertly guides the reader through creating How Right Now!, which embodies the spirit of Ubuntu: "I am because we are." Her book is the foundation we need for our village to be, and do, better in the future."
Ashani Johnson-Turbes, PhD, Vice President & Director of the Center on Equity Research, NORC at the University of Chicago and Vice President, Society for Health Communication
"Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia has written an indispensable guide to communicating for better public health--better health, period, of all Americans. Data show that telling and sharing our stories improves health outcomes. There's no better medium than digital and social media for doing this--and Dr. Burke-Garcia gives us a guide."
Morra Aaron-Mele, Executive Vice President of Social Impact at Geben Communication, Founder of Women Online and The Mission List, Author of the book, Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home), and host of the Anxious Achiever Podcast for LinkedIn Presents
"With a mix of personal anecdote, compassionate reflection, and expert insight, Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia demonstrates the crucial role context plays in public health messaging: What we’re going through can impact what information we see and how we perceive it… This book should serve as a road map for pandemic communicators — what we’ve done and what we could do better."
Robyn Correll Carlyle, MPH, Public Health Consultant
"Communicating Through a Pandemic: A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future by Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia is a must read for communications professionals, not just in the public health field, but in every field. As Dr. Burke-Garcia takes us through the history of pandemic communication, leading up to where we are today, it's clear that not only her deep understanding of public health communication, but her big picture, nuanced perspective provides much needed navigational guidance for where we go next. Thank you Dr. Burke-Garcia for providing this communication roadmap, filled with context and insight, for a crisis that certainly needs one."
Cooper Munroe, Founder and CEO, The Motherhood
"As the pandemic pressed in on all of us, isolating us from the lives and the people that we had come to know and love, it began to take a toll in ways many of us could never have imagined. Not only were we wrestling to make sense of a strange new disease, the illnesses it was causing, and the deaths it left in its wake, we also began witnessing mental health concerns with little understanding of what was happening.
In her book, Dr. Amelia Burke-Garcia walks us through that process and how it helped birth a mental health, coping, and resilience campaign called How Right Now (or Que Hacer Ahora, in Spanish). She shares insights and information on what she learned through her work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and how we can learn from this pandemic so when the next one rolls around, we can do better at not only disseminating information but helping people to cope.
Burke-Garcia’s personal and relatable style throughout the book provides an engaging and authentic look at her own experience as well as ties in what was happening in the world around us. She begins by building a foundation rich with science and data that not only helps the reader make sense of where the book is going but lends to its credibility. She also explores the media’s role, the impact of social media, and the mixed messages people have received throughout—all of which can have an impact on a person’s understanding of and response to the pandemic.
This book makes a wonderful resource for those who work in public health or even mental health, but it also is a useful read for anyone who has lived through COVID-19. Not only are the anecdotes relatable, but reading the experiences of others resonates with readers and lets them know they are not alone in their experiences—there are other people out there who are going through the same thing. This book also provides an insightful and thought-provoking history of what our country—as well as the world—experienced.
As Burke-Garcia reminds us, we can learn from this pandemic and get better at communicating true information during public health crises. We can learn how to utilize social media to support our messages rather than allow it to work against us and she willingly shares her ideas and experiences in an insightful and thought-provoking way. And, even though our world may be different than it was pre-pandemic, Burke-Garcia's book reminds us that there is still hope."
Sherri Gordon is an author and contributing writer for VeryWellFamily. She is also a bullying prevention and healthy relationship advocate and writes regularly about parenting, mental health, and technology.