- Jamie Dowd, North America health lead, Weber Shandwick
- Andrea Fassacesia, EVP, earned media strategy lead, North America, Weber Shandwick
- Donna Klassen, cofounder and CEO, Let’s Talk Menopause
- Tony Morrison, senior director of comms, GLAAD
- Ellie Polack, MD, external affairs, Cigna
- Chris Ridley, VP of comms and media, Moderna
- Kevin Wong, SVP, marketing, comms and content, The Trevor Project
Healthcare communicators have always had a complex environment in which to navigate. The COVID-19 pandemic, though, took that reality to an entirely new level, one in which confidence in public health institutions has significantly dropped and the rise of new technology, with all of its potential, has also served to further alienate consumers.
The experts who gathered recently for this Weber Shandwick-hosted roundtable deal with this challenge every day. It became immediately clear that these leaders bring serious ideas to this very serious situation. And it starts with appreciating just how daunting are the challenges healthcare communicators face today.
While misinformation is hardly a new phenomenon, the speed and breadth with which it disseminates has greatly increased thanks to current communications platforms.
Weber Shandwick’s Jamie Dowd cites a recent MIT study revealing that misinformation spreads ten times faster than accurate, true information. Curbing its spread becomes even harder when groups are funding and purposely pumping misinformation into social media platforms.
“Our organizations have a lot at stake,” she notes. “We have a big part to play in fixing this huge public health concern, but we can't enter with just facts. This is a very emotional conversation in the healthcare space.”
Dowd suggests that while fighting misinformation, it’s important to approach the problem with a “deep sense of empathy for those sharing misinformation” and recognition that it isn’t necessarily spread with malicious intent.
Many consumers fall into the “muddled middle,” people who may doubt the accuracy of information, but don't know how to combat it. This audience, she adds, has the most to gain from accurate targeted facts. Approaching these consumers with respect, even to the point of avoiding the term “misinformation,” will be key to ensuring they are open to hearing the real facts.
What further exacerbates the dangers posed by misinformation, panelists agree, is that so many people think about healthcare from a perspective of fear or anxiety. Information surrounding vaccines, for example, is often misrepresented.
“People won't trust the facts,” observes Ellie Polack of Cigna. “They're making decisions based on perceived trust.”
It also doesn’t help that “as a society, we are really bad at self-assessing risk,” notes Moderna’s Chris Ridley. He suggests that when pondering risk, it helps greatly to not do so from a fear base. The proper perspective goes a long way.
What is the truth?
“Opinions and facts are very much meshed together right now,” adds Andrea Fassacesia of Weber Shandwick. The Trevor Project’s Kevin Wong underscores this by adding that government officials often introduce legislation and make policy based on personal beliefs rather than experiences and facts.
And then there’s the media. Increased pressure to serve up clickbait is causing even legitimate news outlets to cover controversy, even if it’s only to question the veracity of the facts. When making decisions about how to handle misinformation and reporters who feed into it, communicators need to use “art and science mixed together to make nuanced decisions,” he advises.
“A lot of times it’s better to go directly to stakeholders rather than continuing to generate attention on an article we know is going to be biased,” continues Polack.
“There's a muddled middle for sure in the journalism space,” asserts GLAAD’s Tony Morrison. He also suggests media outlets would be doing the public a service by covering serious healthcare issues in the bill stage, as opposed to only after bills become laws.
Meanwhile, Fassacesia laments that “the days of fact-checking are different now.” Media outlets are even creating — out of necessity — visual verification teams to ensure that visual assets are accurate. Even the age-old mantra of “seeing is believing” has come into question.
(Clockwise from top left) Dowd, Klassen, Morrison, Polack, Fassacesia, Wong and Ridley. (Klassen image by Kristina B Photography. Morrison image by Luke Fontana.)
Dowd notes that healthcare providers remain the most trusted sources of information for patients. Yet to be most effective, healthcare providers, particularly physicians, need to move away from employing a “doctor speak” style of communication, explains Donna Klassen of Let’s Talk Menopause.
“They also need to learn the basic skill of validation,” she specifies. “It’s not happening currently and it would go a long way in building trust.”
Several panelists noted that empathy is a critical communications tool, especially in this space.
“Making people feel like they're part of the story is a good way to tap into that trust,” says Morrison. That means making sure that patient groups see themselves represented in stories about healthcare issues — a process that starts with the people crafting the messaging.
“We must also make sure that the people we are hiring reflect our audiences,” notes Morrison.
Klassen adds that there’s a need for “translators from healthcare providers to the public. We need them in front of social media for short clips of accurate information people can consume.”
Meanwhile, Fassacesia is convinced that “tapping into social in an earned way is the future. Every reporter covers social media. It’s a place to go if you're trying to change opinions or correct misinformation.”
Insights on influence
Another potentially powerful tool in the battle to earn — or re-earn — trust: Partnering with trusted influencers who can help deliver the facts to target audiences. However, it is crucial to identify individuals that have earned and kept the trust of their stakeholders, which can be a challenge.
“Organizations should self-evaluate to understand who they are trying to reach and who can authentically communicate and share information to that audience,” counsels Dowd. “It might not always be you.”
Even when those influencer relationships are forged, communicators need to make sure they are coaching influencers on how best to communicate with specific audiences – to support influencers, but not control them.
“You want to inform the people who are informing the people,” says Ridley.
You know who else has major influence in this regard? Participants unanimously underscore the role employers can have on healthy behavior.
“That is a huge opportunity for influence,” notes Polack. “People trust their CEO more than they trust their doctor, their local government or local media. We're seeing a role for internal communications to be a mass influencer in terms of health.”
Of course, nothing speaks louder — and builds trust more — than actions. It’s up to communicators to make sure their C-suites are comfortable making the tough decisions and taking tough actions to gain trust with their stakeholders.
“We've got to be comfortable making big, bold decisions and encourage our leaders to do so,” she points out. Polack describes how during COVID, Cigna was not sure who would pay for vaccines, but committed to covering vaccines for diagnostic purposes throughout the pandemic.
“That was a huge trust gainer,” she concludes.