How will the CDC use Clear Communication in Overhaul of Public Health Messaging?

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By Crystal Bruce, Health Communication Specialist

Clear communication and plain language are essential to many aspects of our lives. This became evident during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic around testing, masks, social distancing, and even vaccines. Unfortunately, guidance from CDC left many of us with more questions than answers. CDC’s purpose is to serve the public; that includes communicating clearly and honestly.

On August 17th, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, CDC director, announced the agency would undergo a significant overhaul, saying it responded too slowly to COVID-19, monkeypox, and other public health threats. In April, she launched an effort to refine and modernize CDC structures, systems, and processes around developing and disseminating the science.  The announcement illustrates that CDC recognizes how clear communication and plain language are vital when responding to public health emergencies. Here are three ways CDC will improve in the coming months:

  • Share scientific findings and data more quickly. CDC aims to use preprinted scientific reports to get information out to the public instead of waiting for research to go through the formal review and publication process. Otherwise, there is a vacuum others could fill, some of whom may not be sharing accurate information.
  • Translate science into practical, easy-to-understand policy. This means there will be less emphasis on publishing scientific papers, calling for staff members to produce “data for action” instead of “data for publication.” For this approach, CDC will need a standardized process when developing guidance that is easy to understand.
  • Prioritize public health communication. Messages to the general public need to be clear, simple, straightforward, and not framed for scientists. According to the announcement, one of the top priorities is to deliver messages about public health threats in plain language that people can understand without sifting through numerous pages on a website.

Health experts agree this will be a huge undertaking. CDC will need to change how it communicates with the public to accommodate how people currently consume information — 24/7 and much of it through social media. Some say it feels like the agency is still using communication strategies developed 40 years ago. Dr. Walensky noted in her announcement, “For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.” The way CDC can begin to rebuild public trust is to communicate clearly: better data, accountability, and transparency.

At Karna, we value clear communication in the work we do and in the products we create. For example, our staff is trained in plain language and clear communication best practices. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we used these skills to develop public-facing resources for CDC’s Vaccine Task Force and Immunization Services Division. And we partnered with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to develop plain language resources—like this one on COVID-19 Vaccines Safety and Fertility Facts—for ob-gyns to use with their patients.

Public health and clear communication go hand in hand, especially when sharing complex information. The focus on clear, direct communication is a positive first step in the long road to rebuilding trust in the country’s premier public health agency.

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