• Holly Hosler

Crafting Effective Messages to Promote Social Distancing

Despite its negative effects on the economy, social distancing is the single most effective strategy in slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that hospital and community health resources can keep up with the heightened demand for services. Without a large majority of the population practicing social distancing, some experts who have studied historical precedent believe that the coronavirus will cause at least twice as many deaths than it needs to, possibly more.

Unfortunately, this message only appears to be resonating with the very elderly and Generation X; those who are part of the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations and younger have tended to perceive exhortations for social distancing as an overreaction. Some might be clinging to their initial beliefs that the COVID-19 is a hoax, and others are simply not looking beyond their own personal needs to consider the duties they might have towards their fellow citizens.

I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to contribute to the death of another human being however indirectly. While I feel a deep responsibility to do what I can right now to support hourly workers in the retail, restaurant, travel and hospitality industries, I also feel a higher call to not unwittingly spread the pandemic. While statistically I’m not likely to be personally at risk if I personally contract coronavirus disease, I acknowledge my potential role in passing along the disease as an asymptomatic vector. Therefore I’m willingly practicing social distancing and wish everyone thought as I do. Just as we were once trained to think that anyone bleeding could have HIV/AIDS, we need to live as if anyone we come into contact with – including ourselves – carries COVID-19. An Infographic to Educate About Social Distancing

Last week, I was contacted by Strategic Health’s Stephanie Helline, a new LinkedIn connection, who had an idea of creating an infographic to proactively assist hospitals and other organizations with key coronavirus communications. We didn't want to merely contribute to the noise; we wanted to move the conversation forward with useful, easily digestible information. Things rapidly fell into place: We decided that our infographic would instruct people about social distancing, and Stephanie contacted an illustrator, who created an attractive visual tool with an optimistic and hopeful tonality. Thus we hope to educate and inspire more people to practice social distancing so more lives can be saved.

A number of communications concerns arose as I wrote the copy for the infographic. Having once chaired a health equity committee at a hospital and being cognizant of health literacy issues, I wanted the content to be understood by as many people as possible. Drawing on guidance from the CDC’s guide “Simply Put” for public health communications, I strived to use monosyllabic words and short sentences. From my freshman composition teaching days, I also knew that instruction requires building on what people already know. Most of us can visualize what 6 feet tall looks like, but translating that into lateral distance is more challenging. After a quick Google search, I discovered that the king size bed’s width (or length, as they are approximately the same) would be an ideal analogy.

Issues with “Flatten the Curve” Language

The piece of visual rhetoric that personally convinced me that social distancing was critically important was the graph that the CDC created showing the exponential growth curve of coronavirus disease spread “without protective measures” and a flattened curve “with protective measures” (more on that language later).

Journalists quickly began using the phrase “flatten the curve,” and most college educated people instantly knew what that meant after seeing the accompanying graph from the CDC. However, 66 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 25 do not have a college degree, and for some of them, it can be challenging to delve back into memories of high school math.

I was particularly concerned that the phrase “flatten the curve” wasn’t resonating with the right people. “Slow the spread” struck me as a simpler message and easier for more people to grasp. After all, flattening a curve on a theoretical graph is an abstraction of reality; what needs to happen in the real world is slowing down the speed of virus transmission to buy our healthcare system more time in responding to the crisis.

Making Copy Improvements to the Curve

Yet the curve itself is a powerful visual message for those who grasp its meaning, and it deserved a role on the infographic. However, the CDC’s use of labels with the term “protective measures” was unnecessarily oblique for the purposes of this particular infographic. So I made the decision to change the labels to “social distancing” on the infographic. Because “social distancing” is the action we want people to take, it only makes sense to use the graph to illustrate what will happen if people practice social distancing versus what will happen if they do not.

Choosing the Right Words

I consciously made a number of other rhetorical decisions when crafting the infographic copy. For example, some of the general public knows what ventilators are, but I considered that “breathing machines” would help more people understand just how dire the coronavirus situation might become. By painting a clear picture that hospitals could run out of ways to help some patients with COVID-19 breathe, I hope to inspire the average citizen to action. That’s why the intro copy ends with: Social distancing is what you can do to help.

Putting It to the Test

To test my copy, I asked my third-grade daughter to read the infographic. While she tripped up on the phrase “cultural venues” and found “containing” to be a difficult word, when I pressed her about what she was supposed to do in response to the coronavirus, she gave me very clear, direct and specific answers. My primary message had gotten across – to a child no less. I consider that a win.

If you are looking for someone who can help your organization craft clear, public health-related messages, email Holly Hosler or call 443-253-3897.

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