COVID-19 and communications

COVID-19 impact: Navigating communications during the pandemic

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked members of the university community to share their expertise about how the coronavirus has affected all facets of life and offer insights on ways to move forward.

Brooke McKeever is the associate dean of research for the College of Information and Communications and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She studies strategic communication, including public relations and health communication with a focus on misinformation and content that mobilizes the public to improve public health.


Big picture: What has the past year taught us about communication during a public health crisis? 

The past year has taught us many things about communicating during a public health crisis. I think we have realized the importance of leadership, not only in managing this pandemic but also in communicating about it. I think we have learned the importance of listening to and communicating about science in clear, concise and honest ways. People don’t want information to be sugar coated or to be talked down to at a time like this — people can handle the truth and they want the truth so they can do their best to protect themselves and their loved ones. We have also learned the importance of communication with colleagues, friends, family and loved ones. At a time when gathering together in person has been difficult, I think we have rediscovered the importance of checking in on people via phone, text, virtual platforms like Zoom, or whatever means are available for those involved.

What have been the challenges in thwarting misinformation/disinformation during the pandemic (for government, businesses, media and/or health care providers)?

The changing nature of the pandemic and the nature of scientific discovery have made it difficult for officials and media to provide clear and concise information, in some cases. When information is being updated and some things remain unknown, it is easy for mis- and disinformation to spread and, unfortunately, that kind of information can be hard to stop or correct once it starts. While it is important for information to come from experts at a time like this, I think it is also incumbent upon all of us to try to dispel misinformation when we see it and to share correct information when we can. The availability of good health and science communication right now has made it easy to link to correct information in cases where misinformation might have been shared originally. This does not always mean that information will be believed, of course, but we can’t stop trying to share facts. 

What socioeconomic communication gaps were made clear by the pandemic?

Access to information has been vital in this pandemic. The vaccine rollout, in particular, has made it clear that there are gaps in communication and internet access. Things like information hotlines have been established to try to address some of these gaps, but clearly more work is needed. I hope one thing that will come out of this pandemic is a push from policymakers to decrease or eliminate these gaps, to make internet more widely available or accessible for everyone, especially those who are disproportionately affected by health issues like this virus.  

What role can and should social media platforms play in communicating during the pandemic?

Social media plays an important role in communicating during crises and that has also been the case during this pandemic. We have to meet people where they are, in terms of communication, and most people are on some form of social media. What I have noticed is organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) joining platforms like TikTok to share information. I have also been happy to see people using platforms like Facebook to create groups to help share information, answer questions, and create a sense of community. A local group, South Carolinians Reducing the Spread & Impact of COVID-19, has more than 32,000 members and posts regularly. The team managing it is made up of volunteer public health experts who are working hard to keep people updated. 

What changes, if any, have you seen during the course of the year to improve how we communicate information about the virus, testing, vaccines, etc.? Are we in a different place — communication and information wise — than we were last spring?

One change I have noticed is a general increase in people’s interest in public health and scientific information. The pandemic caused many people to learn scientific and medical terms they may not have known before, and I think people are paying attention to this type of information more now than in recent years, which could be beneficial moving forward. In terms of work, I have noticed us all getting a little more informal in our communication. We have seen into each other’s homes and lives during this pandemic, for better or worse, and I think that has made us more understanding of each other in some ways. We give people grace when a child or a pet interrupts someone speaking or when someone is late or has to leave early because they are juggling responsibilities. I hope that grace, understanding and flexibility continue as we move forward.  

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