Trust in H1N1: The Messenger

Earlier this year, the scholarly journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Research published an extremely interesting article entitled Exploring communication, trust in government, and vaccination intention later in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic: results of a national survey. If you know someone who has access to that journal, I highly recommend you read the article. And if you don’t know someone, I’ve pulled out three of the biggest points from the article, and plan to talk about it all week in a series I’m calling Trust in H1N1. You can find links to the other two posts on this article following today’s post.

Today we’re talking about the messenger.

Very often, when we talk about government emergency communication, we talk about the message. We plan for what we’ll say. We have message maps and approved talking points, templated press releases and FAQs, dark sites and empathetic Facebook messages. We don’t lack for what to say in many planning areas. (I’m willing to bet that no other disaster has had as many potential messages written about it as has an aerosolized anthrax attack, and this is due solely to the CDCs Cities Readiness Initiative funding and program.) We write messages all day, and some of us even pilot test them, get them approve and practice turning the templates into real messages. Boy, we are ready to go.

Unfortunately, that’s only part of the equation. As anyone who has ever taken a media relations course or some sort of in-front-of-camera training will tell you, up to eight percent of the audience’s comprehension comes from non-verbal cues. But where in our planning documents does it tell folks not to read in a monotone voice, or not to shuffle their feet, or strive to make eye contact with the cameras (or media folks), not to fidget and to turn off your cell phone? It doesn’t, and that’s a huge problem because if you put the wrong person up there, it could do as much to derail your messaging as not having pilot tested your messages. While the research is extremely nascent in this particular topic, there is some interesting anecdotes and correlations that support that who says something is almost as important as what they say (hm, sounds almost like the tagline for this blog that I know…).

There is growing consensus that, as Larson and Heymann remind us, “It is not only the ‘what’ that matters [with regard to what is communicated], but ‘who’ is conveying the information or concerns and ‘how’ it is communicated.

While trust scales are being developed to give us a way to model trustworthy speech, real life messengers are demonstrating how things should be done. Folks like Governor Frank Keating and Mayor Rudy Giuliani have shown, in the worst possible situations, how the right person saying the right thing at the right time can make all of the difference:

It may behoove them to adopt the “Giuliani model,” based on then-Mayor Giuliani’s behavior after the 2001 anthrax attacks: He conveyed empathy, compassion, and grasp of the complex situation and made excellent use of his team of experts, each speaking to his or her specific area of responsibility.

But sometimes, even saying the right thing isn’t enough. It’s demonstrating that the messenger really truly believes in what they’re saying, and are willing to prove it. Read about President Barack Obama’s decision to publicly vaccinate his daughters against H1N1:

[I]t appears the president’s [sic] actions to vaccinate his children may have transcended typical political divisions and allowed the public to see him as a parent making decisions on behalf of his family. This suggests that having highly visible role models may be an effective communication strategy, particularly as it may reflect the emphasis on fiduciary responsibility and fairness as a critical component of trust in the context of vaccination decisions.

Our findings are consistent with a report from the United Kingdom that asserted that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s unwillingness to disclose the vaccination status of his young son during the controversy over the MMR vaccine undermined the government’s own message about the safety of the vaccine.

So, by all means, continue to plan your messages out. But don’t, for one second, believe that your work is done. Choosing the right spokesperson to deliver those messages might be just as important. And something that can easily be practiced today. A less well-known facet of Mayor Giuliani’s performance in the days following the 9/11 attacks was that much of what he said was planned, practiced, tweaked and updated. His executive team regularly practiced not only disaster drills, but what to say to the media and the public following the disaster. He helped the public start to move on from the attack, but it was less about him as a person and more about his exceptional team and comprehensive pre-planning that was more than a dusty old binder.

Trust in H1N1: Building Trust
Trust in H1N1: Uncertainty


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