Factors Influencing Americans’ Preventive Behaviours during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Strategic Health and Risk Communicators

Sung In Choi (PhD student), Yan Jin, and Mark Badham. (forthcoming). “Factors Influencing Americans’ Preventive Behaviours during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Strategic Health and Risk Communicators.” Strategic Communication in a Global Crisis: National and International Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Eds. R. Tench, J. Meng, and A. Moreno-Fernández), Routledge.

Abstract: This chapter examines factors influencing Americans’ preventive behaviours, including their COVID-19 vaccination intentions, in response to the U.S. Government’s strategic communication about COVID-19 guidelines. This chapter draws on the theory of planned behaviour to shed light on three factors that can help strategic health and risk communicators predict future behaviours during a pandemic: attitude toward a recommended vaccine, social norms (i.e., the likelihood that individuals will follow others’ opinions about recommended behaviour), and self-efficacy (i.e., individuals’ confidence in their own ability to follow recommended behaviour). Based on an online survey of American adults in October-November 2020, the study found, first, that a relatively high proportion of Americans were adopting government-recommended behaviours to prevent infection and spread of the virus. Second, Americans who follow the government’s recommended behaviours tend to have higher vaccination intentions. Third, younger Americans are more likely to be influenced by social norms to adopt recommended behaviours. Fourth, younger Americans have higher levels of self-efficacy than older Americans. Finally, Americans with higher education levels tend to have higher self-efficacy to follow recommended actions, thus leading to higher levels of preventive behaviours. These findings have important implications for strategic health and risk communicators, particularly when attempting to persuade the public to follow government health recommendations during a public health crisis.

Integrating Strategy and Dosage: A New Conceptual Formula for Overcoming Unintended Effects in Public Health Crisis Communication (PHCC)

Xuerong Lu (PhD alum) and Yan Jin. (forthcoming). “Integrating Strategy and Dosage: A New Conceptual Formula for Overcoming Unintended Effects in Public Health Crisis Communication (PHCC).” The Handbook of Crisis Communication (2nd edition) (Eds. W. T. Coombs and S. J. Holladay), Wiley-Blackwell.

Abstract: Lu and Jin provide insights into public health crisis communication (PHCC) by reconceptualizing how we think about the concept of dosage. The chapter extends the notion of dosage from the amount of exposure to publics’ engagement over time in a competitive and conflicting media environment. Lu and Jin delineate a new direction in PHCC by formulating the effect of crisis communication strategy and dosage according to a chemical analogy of solution concentration (i.e. strategy) and volume of solution (i.e. dosage). First, this chapter visualizes PHCC as a neutralization process, in which the base solution (i.e., PHCC strategy and dosage) to neutralize the harm caused by the acid solution (i.e., a public health crisis). Second, this chapter further analogizes the PHCC as the base solution consisting of a solute dissolved into a solvent, where the solute is the message strategy (e.g., emotional appeal) and the solvent is the carrier of the message similar to messengers and channels. Lu and Jin define the concept of PHCC dosage as the volume of “base solution,” which will influence the effectiveness of the neutralization (i.e. PHCC). This new conceptual framework, illustrated with recent public health crisis cases, helps explain PHCC (in)effectiveness. Lu and Jin also provide a theoretical foundation for empirical studies that examine and predict how both the strategy and dosage of a crisis response message might exert intended and/or unintended effects among publics confronted with information clutters and desensitized by previous and/or ongoing crisis situations. The chapter explores new possibilities for research and application of PHCC.

Effective Communication Management in a Public Health Crisis: Lessons Learned about COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Health Communication Executives

Taylor Voges (PhD candidate), Yan Jin, LaShonda Eaddy (PhD alum), Shelley Spector. (forthcoming). “Effective Communication Management in a Public Health Crisis: Lessons Learned about COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Health Communication Executives.” Journal of Communication Management.

Abstract: This study aims to provide insights on the COVID-19 pandemic communication from the lessons learned by health communication executives—how they perceived the COVID-19 pandemic and recommend preparing for communication management of future public health crisis. A number of top health communication executives in the United States were interviewed, for their unique perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic. The contingency theory of strategic conflict management is used for qualitative deductive analysis, rendering several segmentations of key factors that drove organizational communication management decision making during the pandemic: organization characteristics, relationship characteristics, general external climate, external publics, and the issue under question. Health communication executives heavily relied on their past health communication experiences, which led to nuanced understandings of the COVID-19 pandemic. Theoretically, the contingency theory is furthered via an implied theoretical linkage between the construct of general external climate and the construct of external publics. Practically, the health communication executives urged future practitioners to constantly assess risks, hire and use diverse and representative decision-makers; set a communication protocol; and keep the communication in perspective.

National Science Foundation Development Grant

Glen Nowak is a co-Principal Investigator on a $1 million National Science Foundation Development Grant supported under NSF’s Phase 1 funding for projects involving Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention. This is an 18-month long multi-investigator, multi-institution project interdisciplinary project to design and evaluate new approaches to infectious disease modeling to better forecast how outbreaks and pandemics will evolve or change, including based on beliefs and intentions regarding public health actions and recommendations. The project is led by University of Georgia Regents’ Professor John Drake of the Odum School of Ecology and includes several faculty members from UGA as well as researchers from the University of Michigan and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. The researchers will follow an approach pioneered to solve complex engineering problems, collaborating on six demonstration projects that are based upon their core expertise. Nowak and Michael Cacciatore will lead a project that involves designing and implementing a Fall 2022 national survey and then working with infectious disease modelers to incorporate key survey findings into mathematical forecasting models.

COVID-19 Vaccination and Public Health Communication Strategies: An In-depth Look at How Demographics, Political Ideology, and News/Information Source Preference Matter

Abstract: Widely accepted public health actions and recommendations, particularly those related to vaccines, are critical to U.S. and global responses to infectious disease pandemics, such as COVID-19. Drawing from nationally published COVID-19 public opinion polls as well as social and behavioral science related to vaccination acceptance, this study used a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults 18 years-old and older, undertaken in November-December 2020, to examine how four key demographic characteristics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education), political ideology (liberal, moderate, conservative), and news/information source preference (liberal, conservative, balanced) were related to COVID-19 vaccination intentions, COVID-19 risk-benefit perceptions, interest and attention to COVID-19 information, self-reported level of being informed on key COVID-19 items, and trust and use of common COVID-19 information sources. Multiple associations were found, with most having important implications for strategic communication efforts related to COVID-19 vaccination and other preventive health recommendations.

Trust: The Shrouded Public Health Threat

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic, characterized by unprecedented loss of life; political instability; and a global infodemic, has eroded public trust in all types of institutions (Edelman, 2021) except business. Public health efforts at managing the pandemic have consequently suffered as political polarization and rampant online misinformation has undermined the uptake of critical preventive measures such as masking and vaccinating (Nehum, et al., 2021). Public-facing health organizations are particularly vulnerable to trust erosion (Samson, 2021), as their relationships with publics are often matters of life and death. Their inability to address trust erosion could potentially result in fatalities and unintended societal consequences. Understanding the trust erosion process is integral to keeping the public safe and allowing these important organizations to continue fulfilling their public health and safety missions. This study proposes a new Trust Erosion Framework, grounded in extant trust scholarship and ongoing industry discussion, to describe and explain the trust erosion phenomenon and associated processes. Moreover, the study provides insight for health and risk communicators regarding the prevention, mitigation, conservation and restoration of trust among the public.

Coping with Outbreaks: Towards an Infectious Disease Threat (IDT) Appraisal Model for Risk Communication

Abstract: Through an online, nationally representative survey (N = 1,164), this study examines how individuals perceive and cope with infectious disease outbreaks. Findings inform risk and crisis communications strategies for health organizations. This study explored how individuals’ threat appraisals (perceived controllability, perceived predictability, and perceived responsibility) and their cognitive (i.e., information seeking) and conative coping (i.e., protective actions) differ by infectious disease threat (IDT) type (i.e., airborne, bloodborne, foodborne, sexually-transmitted, waterborne, or zoonotic/vector-borne) in epidemic situations. Findings revealed that IDT types varied significantly based on individuals’ appraisals of predictability, controllability, and responsibility for different disease types. Across all disease types, predictability was the most impactful factor related to participants’ information seeking and planned protective action taking.

Effects of Facebook Comments on Attitude Toward Vaccines: The Roles of Perceived Distributions of Public Opinion and Perceived Vaccine Efficacy

Abstract: This study investigated if and how exposure to Facebook comments about vaccines influences one’s attitude toward the vaccines. In this investigation, comments were examined in light of their effect on attitude toward vaccines through perceived distribution of public opinion on vaccines, and perceived vaccine efficacy was tested as a factor moderating relative effects of comments on perception of public opinion distributions. Results from an experimental study (N = 271) showed that exposure to a greater number of comments in a thread expressing (un)favorable opinions on the flu vaccine led to (un)favorable attitude toward the flu vaccine through a change in perceived distribution of public opinions on the vaccination. The indirect effect of comments on attitude toward the flu vaccine through perceived public opinion distributions was greater among participants with lower levels of perceived vaccine efficacy, while the direct effect of comments on attitude was not significant.

The Infectious Disease Threat (IDT) Appraisal Model: How Perceptions of IDT Predictability and Controllability Predict Individuals’ Responses to Risks

Yan Jin, Irina A. Iles, Lucinda Austin, Brooke Liu, and Gregory R. Hancock (Forthcoming). “The Infectious Disease Threat (IDT) Appraisal Model: How Perceptions of IDT Predictability and Controllability Predict Individuals’ Responses to Risks.” International Journal of Strategic Communication.

Abstract: Grounded in the multidisciplinary field of strategic risk and health communication, this study proposed and tested a new infectious disease threat (IDT) appraisal model, focused on mapping individuals’ coping strategy preferences as predicted by their perceived predictability and controllability of the disease. A 2 (predictability: high vs. low) × 2 (controllability: high vs. low) within-subjects online experimental design (N = 1,032 U.S. adults) was employed, in which four IDT scenarios (sexually transmitted infection [STI]; waterborne ID; foodborne ID; vector-borne ID) were shown to participants in a counterbalanced fashion, to examine the effects of IDT appraisals on how individuals cope with outbreaks. Results support the hypothesized model, in which assessments of predictability, controllability, and responsibility of an IDT situation drive individuals’ affect valence, information seeking, and conative reactions in passive and active ways. Findings further provide insights into what information seeking strategies and IDT coping behaviors individuals prefer based on their differential IDT appraisals, thus suggesting how public health authorities and risk communication professionals can optimally communicate about infectious diseases to help individuals understand these situations and respond appropriately.

Communicating with the Public During a Public Health Emergency

Glen Nowak is an invited panelist at the June 25-July 2 (virtual) annual meeting of the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention. The panel session on June 29 is focused on “Investigation of a Potential Outbreak of Birth Defects,” and Glen’s presentation will be on “Communicating with the Public During a Public Health Emergency.”