96: COVID-19 Messaging Lessons

Robert Jennings, Executive Director of the National Public Health Information Coalition, discusses communications lessons learned during the pandemic; ProPublica journalist Caroline Chen hopes Congress reads her story about the funding public health...

Robert Jennings, Executive Director of the National Public Health Information Coalition, discusses communications lessons learned during the pandemic; ProPublica journalist Caroline Chen hopes Congress reads her story about the funding public health needs to address congenital syphilis; and ASTHO announces new job openings.

Website: National Public Health Information Coalition

ProPublica Website: Babies Are Dying of Syphilis. It’s 100% Preventable.

ASTHO Webpage: Job Opportunities

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Wednesday, January 12th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Public health communicators have had their hands full during the pandemic. Now, they're looking back—even as Omicron surges—to capture lessons learned and make improvements to their craft going forward.

Robert Jennings is executive director of the National Public Health Information Coalition. He tells us more in today's morning conversation.

We know public health communicators gathered recently in New Mexico. Tell us why they were there.


Well, as you mentioned, Robert, NPHIC is a network of public health communicators from around the country, and our purpose is to provide our members with the tools and resources they need to strengthen and enhance the practice of public health communication, especially when responding to a public health crisis.

So, recently we invited senior-level communicators from state and big city health departments to a meeting in Albuquerque, which took on a form of a hybrid meeting—which means we had people in person and virtually—and we worked in collaboration with the CDC and wanted to glean some lessons learned from the pandemic response from these senior communicators. Our goal was: to document communication successes and best practices; and discuss the challenges around those things that did not go so well; and, finally, to outline some opportunities for future success.

I think it's important to note that we wanted their feedback to be in the context of the different phases of the pandemic. So, our facilitated discussion looked at the response at beginning of 2020, when the virus first hit our shores. Then, we jumped ahead to January 2021 when the country began the rollout of the vaccine. And then, we looked at the response in the summer of 2021 with the emergence of the Delta variant.


So, when did you hear what were some of the key lessons that communicators brought to the table?


Well, we'll start with the positive. There was consensus that the crisis and emergency risk communication principles stood up fairly well, and those principles are being first, being right, and being credible. There may be some discussion needed in the future on how the principles will need to be tweaked to be more applicable to today's challenges; but again, overall, they stood up pretty well.

There was also an agreement that there was good information flow and effective inner-agency collaboration, meaning the messages were well coordinated and were quickly able to be shared. And we were able to say what we knew what we didn't know and provide the public with important information to protect their health.

It was also pointed out that, even though agencies had to pivot to a virtual working environment, they were still able to respond effectively; and the use of real-time data and science-based information proved to be invaluable in the public education efforts.

But on the other hand, the challenges communicators faced were significant. Obviously at the top of the list was the politicizing of the pandemic, both of the science and of the virus itself, coupled with the influx of misinformation and disinformation, and also how public health guidance was continually changing or unclear. These issues provided quite a complex set of challenges for communicators to overcome.


What does NPHIC plan to do with this information now that you have it in your hands?


Well, we don't want our experiences to be lost. We are going to compile the information that was shared and issue a report. We want it to be an ongoing resource for our members and our affiliate partners for future planning, training, and analysis, with the overall goal of strengthening our nation's public health communications capacity.



For the last two days, we've heard from ProPublica journalist Caroline Chen, author of an investigative story about syphilis among newborns and the difficult work it takes to help those infected with the disease. You can hear both parts of that conversation by listening to our Monday and Tuesday reports. This morning, we close our coverage with a final question for Caroline Chen.

Public health people are on board with what you're talking about here—doubtful you'll find much disagreement there. So, truly who is this story for, and what do you hope they'll do with it?


Yeah, I'm preaching to the choir here.

I had two goals with this story; one was to raise general awareness. So, as I mentioned right at the beginning, a lot of people don't even realize that syphilis is still around. So, that's why we partnered with NPR and we did a radio piece on Morning Edition because I know a lot of people are not going to read a 6,000 word story—as much as I think that it's great.

I just wanted people to hear the word "syphilis" and hear the word "congenital syphilis" on the radio, and NPR has that great reach, so even as a 3–4-minute piece. That was what I wanted is for people to be aware and to have it on their mind to think like, "Oh, this is something I could test for." You know, I think every little bit of public discussion also lowers the stigma a little bit, so that was one goal.

The other goal I had was to get to people who are politicians, who are in positions of power, people who decide the budget, people who might have a chance to say like, "Oh, you know, maybe we should not just determine the budget based on what is the most sexy or flashy or urgent at the moment, and think about our long-term priorities." And that is also why I also did a second op as sort of a short version in the Washington Post. Just sort of hope to reach the DC audience.

So, I think there's sort of different hopes that I had for the story, and I've been really gratified to hear from a lot of people. That showed me that, to some degree, I've achieved some of those goals.


There's a link to the story in the show notes.


Finally this morning, ASTHO hiring. The organization is looking for two consultants—one to help with health equity strategy in the U.S. Pacific region, and another to do the same work in the Atlantic region. It's also hiring a senior analyst for programmatic health equity initiatives and a senior analyst working on climate change concerns.

You can see these and other listings using the link in the show notes.


That'll do it for today's report.


Make sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. You can also listen on Alexa or Google assistant.

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Be sure to join us again tomorrow morning for more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

Caroline Chen

Reporter, ProPublica

Robert Jennings

Executive Director, National Public Health Information Coalition