Communicating during COVID-19: Journal publishes UW-Madison task force’s recommendations

In March 2020, the novel coronavirus was spreading rapidly, disrupting everyday life, and already proving to be one of the biggest global health crises in modern day times.

The evolving science soon showed that slowing the spread of COVID-19 required people following protective measures like physical distancing, washing hands, wearing a mask and sanitizing commonly touched surfaces.

But as Department of Life Sciences Communication Professor and Chair Dominique Brossard said, the challenge was spreading those critical public health messages.

“The problem for a public health disaster is that you have to have a concerted effort from multiple actors on the ground. You need to make sure that everything is coordinated, so that people don’t contradict each other,” Brossard said. “We don’t have an infrastructure to do this kind of thing.”

A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison centers and departments, including UniverCity Alliance (UCA), and community partners also realized that a strategy and structure for developing and sending effective messaging on these public health rules were lacking. To fill this void, they formed the UW-Madison Communication Collaborative for COVID-19 Coronavirus Response.

Their findings were published in the Journal of Science Communication on April 20.  

“In March 2020, we knew so little about COVID-19. And what we did know was changing rapidly. One of our UCA co-chairs, Lori DiPrete Brown, started talking to Markus Brauer (Psychology), Dominique Brossard (Life Sciences Communication), and Ryan Westergaard (Medicine) about the research side of COVID. Since UCA had already done so much work with local governments, we reached out to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities to asked, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter explained.

“The answer they gave us was, ‘Help us communicate accurate public health information.’ We wanted to build a coalition of people on campus who were willing to help. I was so impressed by the public service spirit we found on campus.”

In addition to UCA, the interdisciplinary task force that rallied around the need for rapid communication during the initial COVID-19 outbreak included the following:

  • Civil Society and Community Studies
  • Data Science
  • Education
  • Global Health Institute
  • Life Sciences Communication
  • Morgridge Center for Public Service
  • Psychology
  • Population Health

Community partners included the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and Madison / Dane County public health departments.

The size of the group varied with members’ availability but maintained 20 to 30 highly involved participants. More people supported specific projects or attended meetings, and the email list for the group includes over 100 contacts.

Luter, who was one of the initial conveners, prompted the group forming by sending an email seeking partners in the communication effort. Brossard said the initial request and subsequent weekly check-in meetings led by Luter were crucial to the group’s success.

“The problem that you have when you have a lot of actors that come together is that everyone is willing to do things, but everyone is busy and pulled in different directions,” Brossard said. You need someone to keep the train going. (Luter) made sure there were meetings.”

While leading a communication campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic was daunting and a learning experience, the group achieved successes, including creating viral posts and connecting with local celebrities who helped spread the public health messages.

The “Do Your Part” campaign shared 10 strategies for reducing the spread of COVID-19.

They created a campaign called “Do Your Part” that shared 10 strategies for reducing the spread of COVID-19. This was shared through newly-created social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We really helped design campaigns that were adequate for Wisconsin and responded to the present need. We had a social media presence that was really important,” Brossard said. “We did some other efforts through a survey with more than 40,000 people responding. There was that engagement at the local level.”

Brossard said these efforts utilized social science insight to inform practice. They documented what they learned in a “practice insight,” which was published in the Journal of Science Communication.

The group’s overarching goal was to provide a “broadly accessible overview of our efforts to address the need for early, effective risk communication during the COVID-19 outbreak,” according to the paper. Brossard said she hopes it will be looked to as a model during future crises that require informed communication practices.

The group created recommendations for researchers and practitioners based on their experiences that focus on infrastructure required to communicate effectively, data and an understanding of intended audiences, and the use of theory and empirical evaluation.

While success of a communication campaign is not guaranteed, addressing as many of the group’s recommendations as possible will increase the likelihood of success.

“While we hope to never find ourselves in a similar situation as we did in March 2020, our insights and recommendations will help us be more prepared, and we hope others can learn from them as well,” the authors write in the paper.

—By Abigail Becker