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Truth and trust: five ways health charities should be communicating right now

Tackling health misinformation during a pandemic requires a blend of truth and trust. What does this mean for health charities?

Tackling Health Misinformation, a new report by fact-checking NGOs Full Fact, Africa Check and Chequado, argues that our ability to keep people safe, via access to evidence-based information and advice, is put at serious risk in a health crisis. That’s because crises cripple our capacity to process complexity, and leave us more vulnerable than usual to heeding, and even spreading, dangerous misinformation.

Sticking to the facts is not enough by itself. The report draws on numerous studies to show that the way information is communicated matters too, as does who is doing the communicating. The UK Government’s coronavirus response has exemplified the importance of retaining both truth and trust: adherence to public health guidance was much higher while the Government enjoyed high levels of public trust. Now that this has been weakened, people are apparently paying less attention to the rules, no longer regarding them as the final word.

One consequence of this is that UK health charities now have a more important role in the pandemic response than ever before. For hundreds of thousands of people living with conditions from cancer to mental health problems, these charities are a vital touchstone. Generally regarded as trusted authorities by the communities they exist to support, charities’ role becomes essential once other sources are no longer up to the task of inspiring confidence.

Based on the report, and my experience working with health charities, here are five principles that these charities need to stick with. Many health charities have already adopted these, and as the official picture changes, it’ll be important to keep doing all of them:

  1. Use simple messages

According to the report authors, a health crisis almost always triggers an accompanying ‘infodemic’ – a rapid rise in the volume of crisis-related information in circulation. People actively look for information to help them navigate their own healthcare needs or personal circumstances. But like everyone right now, your audience will be overwhelmed by what they find, resulting in a reduced ability to process complexity. When you combine this with the public’s well-documented aversion to ambiguity, and our struggle with concepts like probability, you can see how easy it is for nuanced points to be lost. Keep your messages simple. Communicate about one thing at a time.

  1. Communicate early and consistently

We have a tendency to believe what we hear repeated often – it’s called the illusory truth effect. As a result, rumours repeated often enough on social media can start to feel like common sense. The report highlights a study that shows that we are less able to discern credible information from misinformation when we’re distracted – in other words, when we’re busy, preoccupied, or looking for content to share with our friends. As the pandemic picture changes, and the guidance becomes more complex, the challenge is to understand quickly what your core message should be, and then to stick with it. Your community needs to see it a lot.

  1. Address your community at large

Conspiracies undermine public health messaging, and tap into fears that authorities have hidden or malicious motives. Some people are more likely to believe them than others, and the most hardcore believers in conspiracies are also those least likely to be persuaded by debunking or corrective information. The World Health Organisation’s advice, as quoted in Tackling Health Misinformation, is to remember that that the target for public health messaging is always the population at large, not the small group of convinced deniers. For health charities, don’t squander precious time and effort trying to change the minds of conspiracy-believers. Talk to everyone else who needs you.

  1. Tell stories

You may think that now’s the time for uninflected, straight-forward information. And it is. But, as the report makes clear, people are drawn to content that is high in emotion – that sparks fear or joy. We are also more likely to spread this kind of content. That’s why those who seed misinformation – maliciously or otherwise – craft their social media posts based on arousing an emotional response. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be setting out to scare people. But you can share human interest stories that evoke positive emotions like compassion and empathy to engage your audiences. Use stories and images that go beyond the rational, alongside simple messages.

  1. Remember trust matters

Most larger health charities now decentralise a proportion of content publishing, often to functional teams and local outposts. However, I’m aware of some who have reverted during the pandemic to a more centralised model of communications, to ensure that messages that go out under the charity’s name are credible and accurate. If you don’t want to go down the centralising route, then make sure anyone publishing content on behalf of your charity – staff member or volunteer – is aware of their particular responsibilities right now, and knows where to turn internally for advice. Help them avoid becoming misinformation super-spreaders.


Want to read more? Here’s the report that inspired this blog: