How Poor Public Messaging Causes Chaos in Crisis

Any public health crisis requires clear and competent communication from officials. From yellow fever to Covid-19, there is much to learn from the way that poor communication causes adverse effects on public wellbeing.

When it comes to public health, public messaging is key.

It is called a yellow fever, but is like nothing known or read of by the Physicians,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in September of 1793. He was describing the deadly yellow fever epidemic causing a massive setback to the social and economic order in Philadelphia.

At the time, little was known about the disease, and doctors disagreed about its causes and treatments. Newspapers reported on the deadly spread of yellow fever, spiking fear among Philadelphians, prompting the wealthy (including Thomas Jefferson himself) to flee and the poor to fend for themselves. No one could agree on the right course of action to take to protect themselves against yellow fever. 

Yellow fever altered the city of Philadelphia forever, causing major economic and social disorder among civilians. The epidemic left what was once the nation’s capital in complete turmoil, resulting in the shut-down of businesses and schools and the death of 10% of Philadelphians. With little government assistance, or direction from authority, citizens were left to fend for themselves.The 1793 epidemic spread to other cities, killing thousands of people over more than a hundred years

Learn why the best return on your marketing dollar comes from copywriting.

An Enduring Challenge

Given the time period, it makes sense that communication practices in the late 18th century were optimal for dealing with something like the rapid spread of a deadly disease. And yet, even in the digital age where modern platforms and technologies make it easier and faster to communicate than ever, mass messaging during a public health crisis is still something we struggle with. 

Just last week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky met with her organization’s senior leaders to share a plan for how to improve. “For 75 years, the CDC and public health have been preparing for Covid-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” she wrote in an email to staff.

From the onset of the virus, a major lack of clear and approachable information left most civilians feeling confused and frustrated when trying to interpret CDC guidelines. Unfortunately in this case, the mishandling of communication practices lead to severe consequences including the spread of the virus and death (much like what happened with yellow fever in 1793).

Messaging helped banish the stigma around alternative birthing

An organization that helps childbearing women across the United States, Choices in Childhood has a crucial job—not least given the woeful mother and infant health outcomes. But without a website to match, it was struggling to connect with its audience. But after approaching MarketSmiths, we crafted 20 pages of copy to match their mission, every word both accessible and inspiring. Once we were done, we’d helped Choices in Childbirth banish stigma around alternative birthing, and boosted their standing among women and other NGOs alike.

> Read the full case study here

Humanizing copy for public health

The good news is that the CDC is making a valid effort to alter their communication style in order to make their language and guidelines more accessible to the public. In the past, the CDC has been criticized for poor public messaging.

From a lack of clear information, to an overuse of academic language, to unclear guidelines that change by the week, it is clear that the CDC needs a major facelift when it comes to crisis management. As a result of these faults, the CDC is on a mission to renew their communication methods by altering their public messaging with better language and clearer instruction. 

As champions of Copywriting for Humans, we couldn’t be more inspired. 

Whether your sector is medicine, technology, finance, or some other complex topic, your words can have extremely positive—or negative impact. For more than 10 years, the skilled writers and content strategists at MS have been taking complex ideas and turning them into content that’s easy to understand and impactful. We work with major medical centers, leading financial providers, cutting-edge technology start-ups—anyone who needs human writing (and don’t we all!). 

Read our case studies or visit our website to see how copywriting for humans can make all the positive difference.

Zoe Tanner

Zoe Tanner

Zoe is an avid reader and devoted cat mother from New Orleans, Louisiana. She moved to New York to study writing and linguistic anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. In her free time, Zoe enjoys working on her stage play, creating video art, tending to her indoor garden, and, of course, lounging with her cats.

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