On July 23rd 2022, the World Health Organisation declared Monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern. The outbreak, which dominated the headlines of national newspapers, was reminiscent of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with mainstream outlets flooding us with news around the disease and competing for our attention, the instinctive fear of history repeating itself too soon made it impossible for the general public to objectively assess the risk. As a result, it was difficult to clearly understand the essential details and establish what we ultimately needed to know.
Several months on, we now know much more about the spread of Monkeypox. We know that there are more cases among gay and bisexual men, we know more about how it is spread and what symptoms to look out for, and we know that the risk of fatality is low. However, when we reflect on the early stages of the outbreak, the attention monkey pox received, from water cooler discussions to online articles and press releases, stands out.
Since the COVID outbreak, people have heightened sensitivity to news around public health emergencies. We are more switched on to such stories now we have experienced a ‘worst case scenario’ play out. But is this now the crux of the problem? Our increased curiosity fuels the fire, with creators motivated to produce health content, self-fulfilling the onslaught of information. How this content is crafted affects the way people perceive health topics and evaluate risks, such as Monkeypox.
We may experience numerous public health emergencies in our lifetime, so it is important that we can learn from the spread of information around the likes of COVID and Monkeypox to understand how the pharma and healthcare industry can effectively communicate the key messages in the future. The need to communicate effectively is based on the need to modify behaviour to improve health outcomes during such events.
The former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s 40/70 rule states that if you speak before you have 40% of the information on a subject, you’re more likely to be wrong, but if you wait until you have more than 70% of the information, it’s going to be too late – so at what point can we begin effectively communicating with audiences, especially around public health emergencies? Ultimately there is always a trade-off between waiting too long and being fully informed. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back on communication during the earlier stages of COVID tempts us all into critiquing what authorities got wrong, rather than praising what they got right. This damages trust, hampering future communications on similar topics, like the Monkeypox outbreak. Going forward, honest and emotive communication is the key way to protect, build and regain trust.
One of the most effective and credible ways to communicate key facts is through data visualisation. People are better at contextualising visual data better than when it is written and this provides new perspectives into the decision-making environment which has been shown to enhance a person’s ability to make better-informed choices. Similar to Chris Whitty’s daily briefings during the pandemic, the presentation of official data provides important clarity among potentially fear-mongering headlines that are competing for our attention.
As the platforms by which we consume our information evolve, we should make bespoke content for popular platforms like TikTok or YouTube where visual elements are the expectation in the sharing of information.
We now have more confidence in the population demographics of those most susceptible to monkeypox exposure. This confidence allows for better targeting of communication efforts, something that is efficient beyond simply cost. Having a complete understanding of the audience you’re aiming to reach, and knowing their behaviours and mindsets, can help marketers’ put themselves in their patients’ shoes and craft information appropriately. The pharma and healthcare industry can often tackle sensitive subjects, so understanding a certain audience’s anxieties or the typical questions they may have can help create a digestible communications strategy.
Finding an appropriate messenger is vital. Depending on the scenario, people may wish to hear from a voice of authority, or in other situations, a person they can closely relate to is more appropriate. For instance, comedian Johnny Vegas may not be an obvious choice to front a campaign on leg ulcer treatment and prevention, but when you learn that Vegas’s dad suffered from ulcers so can understand and emphasise with the target audience, he becomes a much more credible source.
Our experience of a global pandemic has changed the way people read and react to health news and information – and this was all too evident with the media – and individuals’ – response to Monkeypox. As such, the onus has never been stronger on communicating clearly, effectively and simply, to ensure accurate information gets to the most impacted groups quickly to positively effect behaviour change.
Author – Divya Shah, Scientific Strategist at Page & Page and Partners