Health Communications: Early, Often and at the Table

By Sara Aghajanian, MPH

July 26, 2022

July 26, 2022 – Monkeypox has been declared a global health emergency by WHO and once again we’re already seeing how confusing messages can potentially curb the chances of containing disease – and in this case, stigmatize the at-risk populations we’re trying to reach.

Recently, in response to why the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist despite having been more than two years, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid response coordinator said, “We got the biological science right, but we didn’t get the social science right.” While from a scientific standpoint we were able to get vaccines out at a record pace, failure of our public health leaders to communicate effectively about changing guidance throughout the pandemic left many Americans confused and ripe for mistrust of science. “Science is a journey. Science is a process,” said Jha. “And that I think has not been clearly communicated to people.”

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend the Health Communication Leadership Institute (HCLI) hosted by UT Austin’s Center for Health Communication. HCLI brings together health communication leaders from across health sectors to discuss strategies and best practices for leadership, management and innovation. During our time together, an important session focused on reflecting on the response to the pandemic. One of the key themes that emerged is that communications experts were not leveraged effectively early in the pandemic. From non-profits to health systems to public health departments, participants shared that communications staff were sometimes the last to know about new COVID information or they weren’t staffed enough to provide adequate support. Not only were there limited communications resources, but also limited crisis communications expertise.

We don’t just “make things pretty” as this post from Tara McDonagh, communications strategist discusses. “Communications professionals are experts in our field. And we don’t make things pretty. We make them resonate.”

Reflecting on our early pandemic response, what would have happened if we had bolstered communications expertise to ensure strong messages go out to the community? What if we included robust communications staff as part of our pandemic preparedness planning? What if we had invested in advance to prepare enough communications staff at the local and regional level? What if we trained more staff in crisis communications?

Let’s not treat communications professionals as an afterthought. We need them involved from the beginning and embedded on teams. Let’s invest in crisis communications training now and moving forward. We will never truly know what could have been different for COVID-19. But we have the opportunity now to prepare for the next crisis.