The U.S. has failed to contain the coronavirus pandemic and is on track to pass 5 million cases in August. While we continue to see record-breaking numbers of cases, Taiwan is nearly back to normal, never having surpassed 500 cases, and New Zealand has already been declared coronavirus free.

What is causing the U.S. to struggle where others have excelled, and what role do we, as healthcare communicators, play in combating these issues? 

Based on the prevalence of anti-vaxxers on Facebook and the plethora of videos showing non-compliance with mask orders, maybe it’s Americans’ distrust of scientific evidence. The U.S. does rank below most of the world on interest and trust in science according to recent Gallup research. That data point alone, however, ignores recent poll data that shows the general public trusts scientists to handle the pandemic more so than any other individual or institution. If we trust the scientists, then why do we ignore their warnings? If we don’t trust science, then why are we telling pollsters we do?

One reason for the discrepancy comes down to an inherent issue with polling, self-reporting. Some may be inclined to say they trust science because they believe it’s the more socially acceptable answer even if that’s not how they truly feel.  Americans trust scientists to a degree, but there is a decent sized portion of the population that isn’t fully on board. Even still, that only accounts for part of the problem the U.S. is currently facing. 

The other part can be traced all the way back to 1778 and the adoption of the iconic “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. American individualism is sabotaging our collective response to the threat of coronavirus. UVA researchers found that higher levels of individualism reduced compliance with state lockdown orders by 41%!  

As communicators, the most important way we can help in the fight against coronavirus is to get the facts across. In order to do this, we must establish trust with staff, clients, and consumers so that our message is received by open minds. 

Key to establishing and maintaining trust, particularly when considering these particular roadblocks, are transparency, clarity, consistency, empathy and flexibility.

Transparency

Authority figures must be transparent about their motivations for others to take their communications at face value. What does that mean right now? If brands have any skin in the game – for example,  investments in pharmaceuticals – they must be upfront about it. A consumer is not going to trust anything from a brand they feel is hiding interests that may be influencing the advice or science they are sharing.

It’s not inherently wrong to have connections to a current event or ongoing issue, but not disclosing these connections can be a major deal-breaker in terms of trust-building.

Clarity

Much of the information communicators are sharing may originally come in the form of highly scientific jargon that isn’t accessible or meaningful to our audience. To gain someone’s trust, we cannot spew uncontextualized data points and high-level terminology that will only lead to more confusion. It’s said if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Communicators must demonstrate understanding by digesting the information and then sharing it back in a way that makes it clear to recipients why this information matters in their lives.

Consistency

Consistency does not mean saying the same thing all the time, but rather having the same goals and intentions. Anyone following the news cycle has seen how recommendations surrounding the coronavirus continue to change, so how can we build trust if the information we’re sharing is in flux?.

Remain consistent in delivery and intent. When providing recommendations, share that you’re doing so in good faith based on the most recently available credible information. Normalize changing your mind or way of thinking when presented with new, and better, information.

Empathy

From changing work schedules to widespread layoffs, lack of childcare to loss of grandparents,  the pandemic has put most people through the wringer. With that in mind, it’s critical that we remain empathetic with one another even when we disagree – even if we’re 100% sure that we’re right and someone else is wrong. Acknowledging diverse opinions, and the reasons behind them, may lead to greater success in changing someone’s behavior as opposed to attempting to shame them into it, a concept recently called out by Dr. Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

It’s a scary time for many, and recognizing that fear in someone else through empathetic rather than condescending communications may help encourage the fearful to step away from their panic-induced passivity and instead join the collective effort.

Flexibility

This is particularly necessary when speaking to an individualistic audience like much of the U.S. Brands, and leaders, cannot dictate orders and expect all to follow willingly. Offering options, such as allowing employees to work from home OR come to the office with certain safety procedures in place, let people hold on to their sense of choice and agency. Part of trust is a feeling of mutual respect, allowing consumers to have a say in their own choices relates that you, the authority figure, trust them to make the best decision for themselves. In turn, this sense of respect is likely to be mirrored back.

For any leader, building trust is a matter of the utmost importance. As communicators, for both ourselves and our clients, we must be able to build trust with internal and external stakeholders to find success. At a time when many are distrustful of the facts, a disconnect that is leading to increased spread of a deadly virus, it is our obligation to put this trust-building into practice in a way that helps bridge the gap and ultimately may save lives.