The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Editor’s Note from Bruce Hennes, CEO, Hennes Communications: Given mixed, confusing and contradictory messages coming from government officials, public health experts and the media about the pandemic and the vaccine, we felt it necessary to provide our clients with guidance for what to say to their employees and other stakeholders. To that end, we asked Dr. Peter Sandman, one of the country’s preeminent experts on the subject of “risk communication,” to offer learned guidance. Sandman was one of the authors of the industry bible, “Crisis Emergency & Risk Communication,” the 450-page guide published by the CDC. Especially given the likelihood that things will get worse before they get better, it’s up to organizational leadership to speak and write clearly and consistently on this important subject. We hope this article helps.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Risk Communication Messages for This Pandemic Winter
by Peter M. Sandman
(Abridgement by Bruce Hennes)
The vaccine news is incredibly good. Vaccines are coming on line much sooner and turning out much more effective than we dared hope. By this time next year life will be a lot closer to normal. But even though we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel.
And as we move through this tunnel, government officials, public health experts, and others who are leading us through this pandemic need new messages suitable to this new moment. Here are some suggestions:
It’s an Awful Time for Nearly All of Us.
- Show people you understand how miserable they are. Misery is more bearable when it’s validated. Acknowledging people’s misery won’t make them more miserable. It will make them feel more understood and not so alone.
- Mention ways people are struggling. It’ll help a bit if readers see a few items on the list that don’t apply to them, as well as a few that do.
- Talk a little (but not too much) about the ways you’re struggling, too. Then segue to empathy for people whose situations are worse than yours. And invite your audience to offer help to people whose situations are worse than theirs.
Things Are Going to Get Better. But It Won’t Be Smooth, and Things Could Get Worse First.
- Temper vaccine expectations. Stress that there will be a wait before enough doses are available, then a wait before the vaccines take effect, then a wait before we all start regaining confidence, then a wait before our economy recovers, then a wait before the new normal feels normal.
- Pay attention to COVID-19 vaccine side effects. They’re minor in the vast majority of cases, but they can feel pretty major if people haven’t been forewarned. It’s also crucial to warn that coincidences happen, that some people will inevitably die or get very sick shortly after being vaccinated.
- Warn also about humongous logistical glitches — not just in vaccine distribution, but also in vaccine manufacturing. This sort of anticipatory guidance is crucial so people don’t overreact when the vaccine rollout hits bumps in the road.
- Remind people of all the vaccine unknowns. The biggies: how long immunity lasts and to what extent vaccinated people can still get asymptomatic infections and transmit the virus. Masks, social distancing, and the rest may still be necessary even for people who have been vaccinated.
- There will be a lot of controversy about who gets vaccinated when. Look for battles over who’s allowed to skip to the front of the line, who’s allowed to linger at the back, and especially how we prioritize the groups in the middle.
- Express and urge respect for people with a different vaccine attitude than your own. Let’s try not to politicize and polarize vaccine acceptance the way we have masks, social distancing, lockdowns and school reopenings. And let’s not berate those who hesitate to get vaccinated. Most of the holdouts will find it easier to change their minds if the rest of us respect their preference to hang back for a while to see how things go.
- Talk about the hypothetical worst-case scenario. Vaccinated people can still transmit the virus; immunity doesn’t last very long; lots of people don’t get vaccinated; for the foreseeable future COVID-19 will remain a significant public health threat and we all have to figure out what a new normal is going to look like.
- Talk about the hypothetical best-case scenario. Vaccination not only prevents illness but also prevents transmission; immunity lasts a long time; everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated by early summer; that’s enough of the population that COVID-19 stops being a major public health threat and life gets back to something like normal.
- Keep saying that masks, social distancing, and the rest are still important. It will be some months before enough people are vaccinated to make a difference. The vaccines will help sooner if we all also help by reducing viral spread, instead of making things worse while the vaccine rollout is trying to make things better.
- Explicitly connect precaution-taking to the vaccine rollout. Don’t urge people to be careful “even though” vaccines are on the way. Urge people to be especially careful because vaccines are on the way. But acknowledge that the imminence of a vaccine solution tempts some people to take more risks. People will find it easier to resist the temptation if the temptation is mentioned, normalized, and oh-so-gently laughed at.
- None of the above should take precedence over the wonderfulness of wonderful news. To avoid sounding like an over-optimistic less-than-candid cheerleader, put the wonderfulness in the subordinate clause: “Even though these vaccines are a miraculous Christmas gift…”
We’re All in This Together.
- Call a truce. U.S. pandemic response has been politicized and polarized beyond anyone’s expectations by Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s time to declare a truce. A key element of the truce is messaging that encourages citizens to stop blaming “them” even if they’re still blaming you. It’s not just about politics.
- Normalize pandemic fatigue. We are all sick to death of taking precautions. We’re all cutting more corners than we used to. Put pandemic fatigue on the table, especially if you’re an official whose pandemic policies are fatiguing people.
- Normalize pandemic uncertainty. We have all listened while experts serve up pandemic information inconsistent with what other experts are saying. Even the experts are full of uncertainties, though they often have trouble admitting it.
- Normalize pandemic hostility. Some of us are blowing up at what feels like other people’s insufficient precautions. Some of us are blowing up at what feels like other people’s intrusive insistence that we’re not being careful enough. Nearly all of us are blowing up at minor irritations we used to take in stride.
- Encourage people to cut some slack for each other … and for themselves. Hard times can drive people apart, or they can pull people together. We will have a better chance of pulling together if we forgive others and ourselves for the moments when they and we give in to the pressures that are driving us apart.
- Point to the ways we are actually pulling together already. Bandwagoning works far, far better than finger-wagging. People want to do what their friends and neighbors are doing. So we should focus approvingly on the majority who are wearing masks and planning to get vaccinated, rather than ranting about the minority who aren’t.
We Need to Rely on Pandemic Common Sense.
- Acknowledge the loss of trust. Trust in experts and trust in officials have both taken a severe and largely justified hit in this pandemic. Experts and officials have been consistently overconfident as they oscillated wildly between underreacting and overreacting to the COVID-19 threat. They’ve never lived through a severe pandemic before either, and they’re doing their best, just like the rest of us. It’s past time to put all this on the table.
- Lean more heavily on common sense. People are now relying more on their own common sense than on what experts and officials are telling them to do. So pandemic messaging needs to appeal more to common sense. It’s still important to tell people what experts recommend and what officials demand. But it’s just as important to connect official recommendations and demands to common sense. It’s no longer enough to tell people that it’s “the science” or “the law.” Tell people why you think it’s sensible.
- Introduce the concept of a risk budget. We each get to decide how much risk we’re willing to take and willing to impose on others. Then we get to allocate the risk, based partly on expert advice but mostly on our own seat-of-the-pants common sense. If we really, really want to get a professional haircut, maybe we should decide not to go out to dinner for a month. And when we see other people taking risks we wouldn’t take, we should consider that maybe they’re avoiding risks we do take and cut them some slack.
- Talk about harm reduction as the commonsense replacement for the futile pursuit of zero risk. Aiming for perfection is self-defeating. We all need “permission” to have less strict standards, and “permission” to violate even those standards from time to time. Otherwise, learned helplessness and fatalism may set in – and then we stop trying.
- Build the individualistic case for pandemic precautions. People in strongly authoritarian countries obey draconian pandemic regulations. People in strongly communitarian countries feel responsible for strangers’ welfare. But fierce individualism is central to the American national identity. That’s why we need to frame more messaging in terms of helping people decide what is best for themselves and for their loved ones.
- Talk about whether the rules are reasonable. Explain the reasoning behind the rules, especially if they’re your rules. Ideally you want people not just to obey the rules, but also to take onboard the reasoning behind the rules, so they can figure out their own commonsense “rules” for themselves. But it’s just as important to acknowledge that sometimes a rule might be wise, even if there’s not much science or even reasoning to back it. Try to stop pretending that you’re “following the science” when you’re actually making pretty arbitrary, debatable judgment calls. People dislike the arbitrariness, sure, but I suspect they object even more to the pretense of sound science.
The next few horrible months indeed demand a truce. We’re not stuck in the tunnel. We’re moving through it. We’ll get out of it faster and with less pain if we move forward together.
Dr. Sandman’s original version of this article was longer than the one above; it is on his website at http://www.psandman.com/col/Corona35b.htm.
Dr. Peter Sandman is one of the country’s preeminent experts on the subject of “risk communication.” Sandman was one of the authors of the industry bible, “Crisis Emergency & Risk Communication,” the 450-page guide published by the CDC.
Creator of the “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula for risk communication, Dr. Sandman has helped his clients through a wide range of public controversies that threatened corporate or government reputation, from oil spills and labor-management battles to vaccine autism scares and the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In the terms first popularized by Dr. Sandman, these are usually situations where the “hazard” is low, the “outrage” is high, and the core task is outrage management.
Dr. Sandman has also worked on the other side of risk issues that include helping activists arouse concern about serious hazards and helping companies persuade employees to take safety rules seriously. Here the task is precaution advocacy in a high-hazard, low-outrage situation.
Finally, Dr. Sandman works on crisis communication, including terrorist attacks and epidemics, where hazard and outrage are both high and the goal is to help people bear their emotions and take appropriate actions.
A Rutgers University professor from 1977 to 1995, Dr. Sandman was a full-time consultant from 1995 until he started retiring in 2018. He came out of retirement in early 2020 to try to help with COVID-19 pandemic risk communication.
Dr. Sandman’s website, www.psandman.com, addresses a wide range of risk communication challenges; his COVID-19 writing is indexed at http://www.psandman.com/index-infec.htm#corona.
Bruce M. Hennes is the Chief Executive Officer of Hennes Communications, a crisis management and crisis communications consulting firm based in Cleveland. Long a fan of Dr. Sandman’s work, Hennes persuaded him to write an article about what he thinks the key pandemic messages should be right now. Hennes worked with Dr. Sandman on this abridgement.
© Peter Sandman 2020 All Rights Reserved Used with Permission.