Consistent, transparent messaging key to effective COVID communication

The “Designated Driver” campaign—which helped shift the culture of drinking and driving in the U.S.—may offer lessons on how to convince people to take safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to its architect, Jay Winsten of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a WBUR interview on February 7, 2021, Winsten, director of the Initiative on Communication Strategies for Public Health, discussed how best to communicate with the public about topics such as vaccine safety and the importance of taking precautions to prevent the spread of infection.

He stressed the need for consistency and transparency. “You can’t have conflicting messages, as we have had on some key issues,” he said. “You also need transparency. You need to be really candid about what you know and what you don’t know. And that comes in handy when you need to change your recommendations.”

Winsten noted that, during the Designated Driver campaign, the media landscape was much simpler, with just three major television networks, making it easier to reach audiences. But “it’s not just about pushing out a message any longer,” he said. “It’s about two-way and multi-way communication. And one of the challenges for public health professionals is to make sure we stay a part of the conversation because it can easily go on without us, and it sometimes does.”

He added that it’s important to conduct research on the type of messaging that is likely to resonate with people, as was done during the Designated Driver campaign. Messages “have to be tested,” he said. “Everything is in such an urgent rush now that I worry…that the research is going to get short shrift.”

Listen to the WBUR article: What The ‘Designated Driver’ Campaign Could Teach Us About How To Handle The Pandemic