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A Lack Of Effective Canadian COVID-19 Communications Can Impact Public Trust, Study Finds

Research

March 16, 2022

A recent University of Guelph study aimed to explore the impact of crisis communications for public health and news media to counter the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The research team led by Dr. Andrew Papadopoulos, a professor in the Ontario Veterinary College’s (OVC) Department of Population Medicine, aimed to learn how the public perceives pandemic messaging and whether the quality of those messages reflects crisis communication best practices.  

“Trust is a key factor in the impact of public health communications, which will determine how willing the public is to adopt government recommendations,” said Papadopoulos, who also coordinates the Master of Public Health Program at U of G. “Maintaining public trust is an important outcome for public health professionals as the public may begin to ignore this messaging, which could be detrimental in future public health emergencies.” 

The team consisted of OVC Population Medicine professor Dr. Jennifer McWhirter; Dr. Daniel Gillis, a professor in the School of Computer Science; PhD candidate Melissa MacKay, who led the research project; master’s students Ariana Del Bianco and Taylor Colengeli; undergraduate research assistant Cassidy Laub; and co-op student Daniel Mil.  

They evaluated Facebook posts and subsequent public comments on pages maintained by CBC, CTV and Healthy Canadians -- the main federal public health presence on Facebook.  

“Social media is increasingly important to health and crisis communication, allowing for timely, evidence-based, and targeted information to be shared through various social media channels,” said Papadopoulos. “COVID-19 is the first public health pandemic in the age of active social media engagement, which provides an opportunity for individuals to share misinformation or begin to cast doubt on public health messaging.” 

The team found many key best practices for crisis communication during a pandemic that can enhance and maintain trust, including transparency, correcting misinformation, and compassion and empathy, were rarely used by all sources.  

Further, the team’s sentiment analysis, which judges the emotional response on social media comments related to public health messaging, showed that many Canadians expressed negative emotion in response to pandemic messaging.  

The researchers hope this information will help with public health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and in future public health emergencies. 

“Canadians trust public health professionals when they provide clear information, presented in a timely way, with a clear actionable direction related to the disease,” said Papadopoulos. “Overall, our research findings demonstrate that public health communication could be more effective, as measures of public trust were less than optimal.” 

He said effective communication practices will also help to keep Canadians healthy following the pandemic as increased acceptance of messaging and uptake of recommended behaviours are more likely when best practices are employed. 

“These findings will be used to inform recommendations for public health officials about how to effectively communicate with the public and maintain public trust during a pandemic. Ultimately, our research could also help public health agencies in future communication-related activities and be extended to controlling and combating chronic diseases and other non-communicable diseases.” 

This research was supported by the University of Guelph COVID-19 Research Development and Catalyst Fund and by the Ontario Veterinary College. 

  

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