Emergency preparedness experts preach the power of communication

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Experts at EPREP Program study pandemic, other public health emergencies to gain insight into best practices

December 12, 2023 – What should governments be thinking about when it comes to communicating effectively to protect public health during a large-scale emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic?

That’s the question that a group of experts from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Emergency Preparedness Research, Evaluation & Practice (EPREP) Program sought to answer in a study published in mid-November. The team interviewed 27 individuals representing governments from 19 countries—all people with experience dealing with large-scale emergencies. Based on the interviews, the researchers identified nine crucial principles for effective communication, including providing information in a timely manner, being transparent about what’s known and what’s not known, coordinating messaging across local, state, and national agencies—and being proactive.

Lead author Elena Savoia, principal scientist in biostatistics and co-director of EPREP, said that effective emergency risk communication may be more challenging these days because of the social media landscape, which is rife with mis- and disinformation. “But there are so many actions that we’ve identified that officials can take to improve the situation,” she said.

“Rather than focusing efforts on countering misinformation, it’s more important to work at the population level to enhance digital literacy,” she noted. “It’s important for people to be more critical of the information they’re exposed to and to be able to appraise it.”

Savoia and her co-authors recommended that government officials be up front with the public when they have incomplete information and acknowledge that scientific information changes over time—that that’s the very nature of the scientific process. “Officials can make people more aware that information is rarely certain in science, that it does evolve,” said Savoia. “It’s important that they are very transparent about this.”

Furthermore, she said, “Our new study highlights the need for government agencies, scientists, and private companies to come together and work on sharing their communications capabilities prior to an emergency, because we cannot afford to wait for the next crisis before doing so.”

Analyzing evidence to shape messaging

The new study is just one example of the kind of work done by EPREP experts. Members of the team have been focused on emergency risk communication for more than two decades. “A number of academic research centers were developed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” said Marcia Testa, senior lecturer in biostatistics and co-director of EPREP along with Savoia. “We became one of the first.” Over the years, research funding has come from high-level government agencies and international institutions including the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and NATO.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a barrage of mis- and disinformation amid fast-moving scientific findings, further propelled EPREP’s research. For example, EPREP is part of a collaboration of universities—called the IRIS Academic Research Group—studying issues such as misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, and how government agencies can best respond.

As part of the coalition, data scientists monitor and analyze content on social media platforms, and experts in crowdsourcing and population surveys run polls to understand what types of misinformation are spreading. “There needs to be a scientific way to discern what’s happening out there in terms of misinformation,” said Testa. “That’s where data science and quantitative experts come in.”

Getting the word out

A top priority for EPREP researchers is sharing their knowledge about effective communication with government representatives who can turn that knowledge into action. To that end, members of the team often present their work at conferences and workshops that include government officials.

For example, in late September, EPREP experts convened a forum in Lisbon focused on best practices to counter misinformation and on promoting a healthy and reliable information ecosystem. The event brought together 35 scientists, government officials, and business leaders from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Savoia led the event in partnership with the IRIS coalition and the Institute for Future Studies, Sweden. Other EPREP researchers participating in the event included Rachael Piltch-Loeb and Alberto Montrond.

The forum included case examples focused on understanding “infodemics”—the contagious spread of misinformation. Speakers described how the pandemic fueled infodemic chatter on an unprecedented scale, how the digital ecosystem flooded with “alternative explanations” and conspiracy theories, how the public began to distrust medical and government advice, and how infodemics can threaten public health security by affecting how people process and act on information.

The forum also highlighted the importance of “science diplomacy”—fostering scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships—even between countries that don’t have formal diplomatic relationships. In a presentation at a conference last month, Montrond pointed out that science diplomacy can be used to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change and terrorism.

“There is a lot of need to bring together scientists from different countries so they can share new research, but also to make sure that this research is actionable by governments. We need to make sure that government leaders are constantly in the loop,” said Savoia.

Karen Feldscher

Photo: iStock/Vertigo3d