Off With the Talking Heads: A plea for a COVID voice

“We don’t have a single consolidated voice.”

These are the words of Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, on Meet the NBC Press approximately 6 months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As everyone focused on the science of treatments and vaccines, there was a lonely voice trying to say, you also have to think about communication.

The problem was never addressed. The result was the “sloppy” work of COVID-19 communication (as several sources have describe it) followed by a loss of public confidence in the government.

This lack of a singular voice can get even worse. As soon as the Biden administration took control of pandemic communications, it began televised press briefings, not with a single spokesperson (as Andrew Cuomo effectively did for New York at the start of the crisis), but having three spokespersons on screen. And now they seem to have added a fourth for 2022.

As pictured above, a recent White House press briefing on The PBS News Hour not one, not two, not three, but four public health officials share the latest information on vaccines targeting Omicron and the likely shift to annual COVID-19 boosters.

The CDC even admitted to its communication failures as recently as last month when the agency’s director, Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, acknowledged that their public guidance during the pandemic had been, “confusing and overwhelming. From the start, the focus was on science without focusing too much on the social aspect of the challenge.

This can be seen in a single number: 1 in 31.

This refers to the two teams of experts the Biden administration has assembled to manage the pandemic: the advisory council and the White House task force. Together they had 31 members. Among them were 15 doctors of medicine, 6 masters in public health, 5 doctors, but only one specialist in communications.

This ratio says a lot about the overall errors made in communications. It aligns directly with comments from Andy Slavitt, former senior COVID-19 adviser to the Biden administration, who said it would give the White House an “A” on the science side of their COVID-19 response, but an “F” on the “social science” side of their efforts.

Despite this persistent failure, the problem can and should be fixed.

Broad communication begins with a simple and central guiding principle, which is universally understood and respected in business and entertainment: the need for a single voice.

In the business world, you can see it embodied in the title of the 2012 bestselling book, “The only thing“, about the value of focusing on the most important task of a given project. Could the point be clearer than the title?

In the world of entertainment, screenwriting guru Robert McKee describes in his seminal 1997 book, “Story“, the age-old principles of what he calls “classical design” for telling a story. It dates back at least 4,000 years to Gilgamesh, the first written record of human communication. McKee’s first section on this is titled “Single vs. Multiple Protagonists”. He explains that having more than one main character “sweets the narrative”.

A concise and compelling presentation of this principle can be found in the 2009 article, “Nicholas Kristof’s advice to save the worldIn a brilliantly written essay, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner describes the research of social psychologist Paul Slovic, PhD. Experiments show that donors will give eagerly to fundraising efforts to fight famine if one tells the story of a child at risk, but if the story being told is about two children, the level of interest begins to drop, and by the time the number hits the thousands, the connection is gone.

Communication is at its maximum with the singular. You can see it everywhere. There have never been American co-presidents, companies have only one CEO, and almost all major movies are made by a single director. This is how communication works.

Moreover, if it is essential in society that several voices be represented, when the time comes to communicate, it must come from a single voice.

All of this begs the question of why the biomedical community thinks they can communicate through a different set of principles. This is not the case.

The communication work was indeed botched. So how can we fix things in the future?

First, we need greater involvement of non-scientific voices. Medical doctors and doctors cannot do the job alone. Business and entertainment/media professionals understand communication broadly on a day-to-day basis. Their expertise must play an equal role in the coming efforts to deal with the current pandemic and future crises.

Second, government at all levels must accept the basic principle of one voice. This is how the brain has been programmed for thousands of years. Breaking this ground rule is fun for performers looking to provoke, delight, and amuse. But for the serious work of informing the masses about public health issues, there is no room for error.

Audiences demand clarity, and clarity demands a unique voice.

Randy Olson, Ph.D., is the director of the ABT Framework Narrative Training program, author of “Houston, we have a narrativeand the 2020 recipient of the John P. McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication from the Southwestern Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association.

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