Tag Archives: Coronavirus

What The COVID-19 Pandemic Really Needs – A Communicator

17 May

     Yes, the world needs a vaccine.  But until scientists create one, we need communicators too.  

      In times of crisis, leadership of course matters.  But so do words.  In a fast moving multi-channel, multi-platform world where communication networks are no longer linear and centralized, finding authentic voices to coalesce around a unifying message has never been more difficult or important.   Our elected leaders command a bully pulpit that gives them not just great opportunities to lead with their words, but equally great responsibility.  It’s one thing to hold daily news conferences, it’s quite another to persuade, inspire, and drive attitudes.

       Ultimately, historians will judge whether our leaders such as President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and many of our state governors have risen to this high mantel.  But one leading epidemiologist believes that on a national level, no one has—yet.  Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota along with three other academic colleagues recently released a paper projecting three scenarios for the progression of the COVID-19 virus.  The scenario that they believe government and healthcare leaders need to prepare for is a second, more powerful wave of the virus to emerge in the fall.  And Osterholm believes there is a national vacuum of urgency.

       “Generally, I think our leaders at the state level are doing an incredible job, as have most of the governors across the country,” said Osterholm when I spoke with him.

       But on a national level, Osterholm is looking for a voice from the past to come forward to the future.  “What I’m looking for is an FDR for a fire side chat.  Or, a Winston Churchill. There are going to be some really tough days ahead, and we need to be brining people together instead of splitting them apart.”

 

       In one important aspect, part of Osterholm’s wish is granted, although not in America.  It’s a voice that represents the past and the present—Queen Elizabeth II.  In her April 5th speech to the United Kingdom, the queen represented the pinnacle of Aristotelian persuasion.  She embodied ethos, or credible and ethical appeal.  The queen in her own properly stoic English way projects pathos, or emotional appeal based upon her experience in the Royal Family during some of Britain’s darkest hours.  And finally, she exhibited logos, or logical appeal to reinforce her message of resilience.   She did it all in just four and a half minutes.

       The queen proves long held communication theory that the messenger enhances the message.  This is precisely what Aristotle meant by his term ethos.  Yale psychologist Carl Hovland called it a source effect.  Hovland and his academic colleagues led research in the 1950’s that would become known as the Yale Studies of persuasion.  They determined that the source effect—or messenger—be it a celebrity, expert, or person of authority was among the four essential effects for a cognitive learning process that led to changing attitudes.  In the queen’s case, one could argue she is a celebrity, expert, and authority figure wrapped in one.  And because she is a beloved figure with an 81% approval rating in the U.K., her message is looked upon with more reverence and credibility than perhaps a similar message from a polarizing figure such as President Trump who struggles to maintain at best a 50% approval rating.

     But part of what makes the queen’s address so powerful is what Hovland would call the message effect.   Her words are deliberate in how they warn of darker times to come, yet reassuring that as a country Britain is up to the fight like so many it has faced in the past.   She also steals rhetorical tricks from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Lennon.  Her use of polyptonton—repeated words—and periodic sentence structure cements the message in the mind.

 “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

                The repeated words, ‘we will,’ and ‘again’ are a rallying cry.  They stick to the brain.  She stole it from Churchill who so strongly used his own polyptonton in 1940:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

       To this day many believe Churchill was talking about the allied invasion of Europe.  In reality, he was talking about a German invasion of Britain.  Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth is rallying the country against the invasion of a virus.  Part of the enormous gravity in both passages is the periodic sentence structure that saves the most powerful verbs until the very end: meet again; never surrender.

       There has also been another voice.  This one comes from the not so distant past—President George W. Bush.

      President Bush’s message is also a call to action.  “We all need to do our part,” said the former president. 

     To be sure, President Bush was a leader who sometimes struggled as an orator.  He often made light of himself as someone who mangled the English language.  But his sincerity and empathy were rarely ever in doubt and that was in full display here, too.

     “Let us remember that empathy and simple compassion are powerful tools in our national recovery,” said Bush.  “We rise and fall together.  And we are determined to rise.”

     This too, Aristotle and Hovland would argue makes the messenger and the message incredibly powerful.

     Dr. Osterholm is right.  We need a national voice.  Not just a voice from the past, we need them from the present. 

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Social Pressure in the Age of COVID-19

29 Mar


   From the time we were in middle school, adults pressured us not to be pressured by peer pressure.  But in the midst of a public health crisis, peer pressure has become among the main communications strategies from government leaders and social media influencers in slowing the COVID-19 contagion.

    The message: save lives—stay home.

    Among the social media stars jumping on board is actress Emma Watson.

    The evolving messaging is firmly grounded in long established psychological theory.  Research by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen shows how action is based not just on our attitude about committing to a certain behavior, but also what society expects us to do.  Fishbein and Azjen called it subjective norms.   The more positive feelings that are shaped about one’s attitude for the behavior, combined with the attitude toward doing what’s expected of them, are predictors of a certain behavior or action.   The resulting Theory of Reasoned Action has become a bedrock tool not just in public health campaigns, but social responsibility movements and advertising.

Figure 1

     The COVID-19 pandemic led to the public health necessity for populations to immediately restrict person-to-person contact to limit the spread of the virus.  Both political and health leaders have issued stay-at-home orders to hopefully slow the growth of infections long enough for hospitals to expand their capacity to treat patients.  The simple message:  if you stay home you will save lives.  That’s pressure.

     The breakdown of Theory of Reasoned Action, or TRA, as it applies to the pandemic is fairly simple. (Figure 1)  One’s attitude about staying home is combined against the social norm of staying home.  The combined attitudes directly affect the attitude of acting which leads to the action.

     The TRA strategy is the cornerstone of the CDC’s pubic communications campaign put together by the AD Council.

    Whether he knows it or not, President Trump has played a partial role in building and reinforcing the social norm.   During one of his recent White House briefings he told Americans their actions on social distancing were “saving many, many lives.”   To be sure, in this age of political tribalism, one’s attitudes toward the controversial president are an independent variable in whether to act upon anything he recommends.  But in this case he makes the powerful appeal for others, not himself.

    Clearly, there are more influencers than just the president.  Collectively, social media stars and athletes such as Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi are applying their own pressure.

 

Figure 2

    Social pressure in public campaigns is nothing new.  The foundations of TRA go back to WWII when the War Advertising Council employed peer pressure to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.  One of their most famous campaigns created posters to change attitudes about home front discussions of anything related to war production and troop movements.  The resulting messaging was “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” (Figure 2)

    Arguable one of the most successful Ad Council campaigns in the past 75 years has been Smokey Bear.  The strategy to increase fire suppression relied on a societal expectation that preventing forest and wildlife destruction was an individual action.  The message was clear and simple: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” 

    Fast forward to 2020 and the same message is reapplied to COVID-19.  Only you can help save lives—maybe your own.  That’s powerful peer pressure.

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