Trust in H1N1: Building Trust

Earlier this year, the scholarly journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Research published an extremely interesting article entitled Exploring communication, trust in government, and vaccination intention later in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic: results of a national survey. If you know someone who has access to that journal, I highly recommend you read the article. And if you don’t know someone, I’ve pulled out three of the biggest points from the article, and plan to talk about it all week in a series I’m calling Trust in H1N1. You can find links to the other two posts on this article following today’s post.

Today we’re talking about building trust.

Trust is a central component to almost everything we do. It is what allows government to operate. Trust is our currency and our charter. Without trust, why would anyone listen to us? Why would the public not revolt and overthrow us? Trust is the only thing keeping our society together. And yet, we haven’t been great stewards of the public’s trust. One needs only to look at the Edelman Trust Barometer to see how poorly government the world over is trusted. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Our article today talks about trust: who is trusted and how to build trust.

First, who is trusted? Research from H1N1 showed that, in a pandemic, public health officials were the most trusted:

… CDC officials as the most trusted, followed by state and local public health officials and Secretary Sebelius. Interestingly, while elected officials were typically less trusted than public health authorities, President Obama was the next most trusted after the HHS Secretary.

Local and state elected offiicals did not fare as well as trusted spokespersons either eiarly or in the midst of the pandemic.

This passage raises an interesting point. First, research is showing that subject matter experts are who our messengers should be. Elected officials maybe shouldn’t be. So how do you tell the elected officials that they should probably avoid the limelight?

But where does that trust come from? Why experts and not electeds? The article hints that the reason might be the actions taken. Subject matter experts and public health officials are the ones leading a pandemic response, so they’ve got some background in the topic. Elected officials may come off as opportunistic. But what comes first, the action of protecting the public’s health engendering trust, or being trusted to implement the public health response?

Selective exposure theory posits that people’s choice of information exposure in a pandemic will confirm their preexisting beliefs and predispositions and that whether someone chooses official sources in a pandemic may be determined well in advance of the event.

But the last sentence in that passage is what I want to really point out:

This speaks to the importance of building trust in and loyalty to official sources as well as educating people about what to do in a pandemic (e.g., hygiene, vaccination, social distancing, etc.) in advance of a pandemic.

So how do you do that?! (If only there was a blog about emergency risk communication, government communication and crisis communication to help you walk through that kind of thinking…) Well, the answer is to look at the current state of things (see the Edelman Trust Barometer link again) and ask if that really is good enough. If not, then something needs to change. Think about what makes you trust something: openness, availability, history, track record of success. Do you do those things? Is that what you’re known for? If not, maybe that’s where you should start.

Trust in H1N1: The Messenger
Trust in H1N1: Uncertainty

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