Communicating Through a Pandemic
A Chronicle of Experiences, Lessons Learned, and a Vision for the Future
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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. 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, adapt, and begin to recover—as individuals, communities, and countries, all co-exiting in an interconnected global ecosystem. 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.
After living through these past couple of years, and seeing both personally and professionally how important communication has been to the success—and failure—of responding to this pandemic, I see the need for an easy-to-read guide about this period of time that can help public health professionals, marketers and health communicators, and policy makers alike understand the COVID-19 pandemic, learn from it, and plan for future emergencies that may require similar skill sets and response approaches.
Unpacking the many and varied roles that communication has played over the course of this pandemic can help us understand what we have been through, what has worked well, what we have struggled with, and what we need to do better personally in our lives and collectively in our communities in order to be able to address more successfully pandemics that we face in the future.
As we all grapple with what we have gone through (and continue to go through), examining how we have communicated during this time in order to understand where we were successful and where we failed is crucial in order to 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.