Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article with the headline: For C.D.C.’s Walensky, A Steep Learning Curve on Messaging. The article outlined how Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has struggled in explaining policy decisions and guidance from the C.D.C. about the COVID-19 pandemic—one of the worst public health disasters the United States, and the world, has ever experienced.
First of all: let me say that criticism of the C.D.C. is warranted, IMHO, and at the same time, sympathy and understanding about the scale and complexity of communicating about COVID-19 are ALSO warranted. This is one of the weird things about working in social change communications—you both see how tough it is to get the job done right AND, as a consumer of the information, you get frustrated and scared just like anyone else when the information is hard to understand or it keeps on changing on you, constantly. I would also note that often, when struggling to meet crazy deadlines in our 24-7 digitized communications environment, communications professionals reassure themselves by saying something like, “C’mon. This is not emergency surgery we’re doing here. Will the world end if we don’t get this tweet approved and sent today?” But the unfortunate reality of public health crises is that yes, it really IS a matter of life and death when it comes to getting accurate information and guidance out in the world quickly.
Because I’ve communicated about such fiendishly complex topics throughout my career—although nothing as urgent and time-sensitive as the pandemic—I have been noodling endlessly about what could or couldn’t be going better about the federal government’s messaging on COVID-19. I noodle like this not only because of my own frustration, but because, as with most things, I think There Are Lessons To be Learned, and it is more constructive to think about what those lessons might be than to lie down on the floor and scream and thrash my legs around like a toddler about what’s going wrong. (A.K.A., the Trump Method, which works remarkably well with some things, like corruption and holding onto power, but also requires a complete loss of dignity and integrity and self-respect).
Lesson #1: Developing good messaging is generally a bitch
I can’t count the number of messages I’ve been asked to write in my lifetime and let me tell you: it’s never, ever easy. Messages are supposed to be tidy little capsules of beautiful language, loaded with accurate information AND they are also supposed to be laden with the exact emotions that will make your audiences light up and say YES! I UNDERSTAND! AND I WANT TO DO THE RIGHT THING! PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO DO THE RIGHT THING!
As you might imagine, coming up with those tidy little capsules is not easy! Number one, you have to get people to agree on what language goes into the tidy little capsules. With complex subject matter, a lot of experts will accuse you of “dumbing things down” when you start the work of constructing the capsules. Number two, you have to teach people—your spokespeople, your ambassadors, your press secretaries, whatever—how to effectively sprinkle these tidy little capsules into everything they communicate about that particular topic.
Listen. I’m a pretty good writer, and I’ve become a much better listener in my older years, and can listen for what people think they want to say and then help them say it better. But even with my skills, no message I’ve ever written—and no message that I’ve ever commissioned from really smart communications professionals—has ever come to life without hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, and a lot of diplomacy and patience. (And even when messages do get approved for release into the wild, then you’ll always have someone who sits in a corner with their arms crossed and says flatly, “I dunno. These messages just leave me cold.”)
Lesson #2: IT’S HARD TO MANAGE EMOTIONS IN GENERAL
Lots of people have asked me to write talking points for them, and some people have asked me for messages, and the two are not the same thing, although they are often confused. I think of talking points as serving a particular need—when people need to communicate repeatedly about a specific subject, they want to be able to convey the main points accurately, concisely, and consistently. I think of messages as serving a much higher order of need—people need messages when they want to reflect their individual or organizational “voice,” when they want to connect with their audiences, when they want to convey information that’s not only accurate and factually correct, but also reflects the emotions they want their audiences to remember and feel. (There’s a whole boatload of brain research on how emotional messages and stories are more memorable and motivational than unemotional language, and like me, you’ve probably seen all of that research cited a kabillion times, so I won’t repeat it here.)
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t even begin to take stock of the emotions we’ve all been experiencing, many of which are on the negative end of the emotional spectrum. Emotions like: Fear. Anger. Grief. Frustration. Confusion. Despair.
I guess I’m feeling a lot of sympathy for how the people responsible for crafting messages about the pandemic are trying to load up those messages with emotions that not only make people out there feel seen and understood, but also are supposed to help them get unstuck from these negative emotions we’re all feeling. We don’t want to be stuck in the mud of negative emotions but it’s hard not to be. We all want to feel emotions that are more conducive to doing the right thing, the constructive thing, the generous thing. I am not a psychology expert, but even I can surmise that people in a hopeful, resilient state of mind are more likely to get their vaccines and mask up than people who are mired in fear, anger, and despair.
I guess if I were in the shoes of the people who are charged with developing the federal government’s pandemic-related messages (and by the way, I’m sure there are many of them, from many different federal agencies, and the lack of communication and coordination between all of them is another Lesson To Be Learned that I won’t go into here), I’d be doing emotional soundings every single day, maybe multiple times a day. I’ve actually worked with research firms that are good at this, in a more specific way—firms that delve into the deep emotional and cultural narratives embedded in our psyches and our daily lives. Then we communicators can learn from that research to understand how messages on specific topics might interact with those deeper emotional and cultural narratives. But either way, it feels like with this pandemic, it’s really tough to develop messages that can break through the fog of people’s negative emotions and help them tunnel their way into a better place.
Lesson #3: WHEN YOUR AUDIENCES ARE….EVERYONE
One of the very first rules of communications, and messaging as well, is: Know thy audience. Know who you’re trying to reach and make sure that your messages are meant for those particular audience groups. If you are trying to reach groups of Black voters versus groups of LatinX voters, some of your messages may be the same—like, your vote matters!—but some may be meant just for one group.
The pandemic, however, is so vast in its reach, so all-encompassing in its effects, it’s hard to keep track of who you’re trying to reach with which messages. This is a moment when people really need to better understand tiers of messaging—like, here are the messages that absolutely, positively, must get out to everyone no matter what, and here are special messages for parents of young kids, and here are messages for groups who have good reason to mistrust health and healthcare messages.
In other words, knowing thy audience is a gargantuan task when it comes to the pandemic. But I think it’s possible to improve on the current situation (understatement), with a few caveats, like: I am genuinely not sure if public trust in the government and in the media have been eroded to an irreparable state, which I blame more on Trump and his GOP henchman than any of the current federal communications efforts about the pandemic. And I’m not sure if the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be such a mighty foe, so complex and so fast-moving, that it would defeat any efforts to message more clearly, more compellingly, and in a more targeted and timely fashion.
All I know is, it feels like there should be a state-of-the-art nerve center of operations, with the policy and communications leads from all of the relevant federal agencies, with daily meetings about coordinating communications and taking the daily zeitgeist temperature, and frequent conference calls with state public health officials, even if they’re from Florida. (Especially if they’re from Florida—I’d be giving them advice on how to tunnel around their bloviating idiot of a governor and figure out how to get the messages out via, say, TikTok.)
I’m going to err on the side of optimism in this moment and say, I hope this nerve center exists. I hope the coordinating conference calls are happening. Because while millions of people like me have received the messages on getting vaccinated, getting your booster, masking, social distancing, quarantining, etc., I know that millions of people haven’t. And whether they’re being selfish dumbasses or are confused by the messaging or haven’t received the messaging—well, we need to figure that out. Because messaging’s hard enough as it is.