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Building trust in a public health crisis

Lately, the 18F content team has been thinking about how to communicate well in a crisis—a time when clear, understandable content is especially important.

To help guide our own work, we’ve been referencing the CDC’s Field Epidemiology Manual, which provides advice for public health professionals about communicating during a public health emergency. In a section called “Trust and Credibility,” it discusses how much the ability to persuade people to take action depends on how well an organization can establish itself as a trusted source.

According to that manual, four factors are central to an audience’s perception of a source as trusted and credible: empathy and caring, honesty and openness, dedication and commitment, and competence and expertise.

Content strategy practices that focus on the needs of the user are essential to earning the trust of the public. Here, we will explain how to embody those qualities on the web in user-centered ways.

Empathy and caring

Be clear, but don’t sacrifice accuracy

When communicating in a crisis, you must balance the need to use words your audience understands with the need to communicate accurately.

We recommend avoiding technical jargon when writing for a public audience. This is also a good general rule for user-centered writing. Sometimes you will encounter a new term that has been used widely in the public conversation about a crisis. In this case you should use the new term, but explain anything that is not immediately clear, because if you omit the term entirely, you lose the opportunity to teach readers its plain-language meaning.

Unless your audience is medical professionals, avoid using technical terms. You can still be accurate without using clinical terminology.

Try to answer all of the user’s questions

When possible, answer users’ questions in the section following that header. If you must send them to another source, explain why, and what they will find there. If you can’t send them to another source, explain why. Being clear with your readers about what you are and are not able to tell them shows honesty and builds trust.

Be inclusive

Only refer to people’s ages when it is necessary to provide health information. Avoid terms like “elderly” and try to use more specific age ranges, for example “people over 60.” Don’t refer to “handicapped people,” but “people living with a disability” or similar. Refer to ethnic information only when it is relevant to the content. Use gender-neutral language. You can find out more about inclusive language in the 18F Content Guide.

Honesty and openness

Acknowledge uncertainty

In a public health emergency, knowledge can change quickly. Expressing that fact will help your users understand why the advice they see may change. When possible, don’t just tell people what they ought to do, but explain why. Many people will be trying to navigate situations without perfect solutions, but by explaining the rationale for your guidance, you can equip them to make informed decisions for themselves.

Honesty is not only helpful from a public health perspective, but can also earn you some trust with users up front. Admit what is known and unknown. Explain that you are doing your best to provide the most up to date information, which will also help maintain trust and clarity if the information or situation changes in the future.

Dedication and commitment

Prove the reliability of your content

Make sure that the user can easily tell how recently your content has been updated. Try to remove any ambiguity about this with timestamps and similar devices.

Provide the sources for any statistical information you include, as well as a link to the source.

Make a distinction between frequently updated alerts, numbers, and other content that changes and content that is more static.

Competence and expertise

Be precise

If there are numbers involved in what you are describing, use them. If possible, avoid general references to time, such as “soon.” Instead, use time frames, like “within two weeks” or “in six months.” Use as specific a term for a disease or condition as you can, without confusing people by using a medical term that most people will not have heard.

Clear a path for subject matter expertise

Delays can create confusion and distrust because rumors spread quickly. By working closely with domain experts, you can make your communications more accurate and timely. Close collaboration always helps speed up the publication process, and in an emergency, time is of the essence.

By pairing content and communications experts with domain experts, you will be able to quickly understand what’s important for the public to understand and work to make sure that information is in plain language and clear.

Use headings and other structural elements

In a crisis, users will seek relevant information fast. You can help by breaking content into distinct sections with headlines that let users know what kind of information they will find there.

It’s already helpful to break up your content into paragraphs with a single central idea, but HTML allows you to do this even better by using the structure of the page. For example, you can use headings like <H1> and <H2>, and style them for better scannability; this will also help people who use assistive technologies quickly find what they’re looking for.

Provide good SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of best practices for structuring and describing your content so that it can be discovered by search engines. By following these practices, you can help your users find the information they need even before they arrive at your site.

SEO checklist:

  • Make sure your site can be crawled by search engines.
  • Use keywords used by your target audiences in your content and meta tags.
  • Use a synonyms dictionary to help surface related content (such as providing information on SNAP when people search for “food stamps”), if your search service or content management system provides one.
  • Design for mobile devices. Search engines prioritize mobile-friendly content.
  • Use unique and informative HTML page titles.
  • Summarize page-level content in description meta tags. Like the HTML page title, the description should be unique. This description could appear in search engine results so it should be written for your users.
  • Use descriptive link labels. Don’t use “click here” as a link label.
  • Follow Schema.org guidance for tagging information related to COVID-19.

Check how your site appears in search results regularly.Be sure to remove outdated information from your site or hide it from search engines. Use search engine analytics tools to understand how users are searching for your content.

Conclusion

In an emergency, it’s critical for people to be able to find information they can trust. By adopting user-centered practices, you can ensure that your information is findable, navigable, and understandable. By taking practical steps to implement the CDC’s advice, you can also make it trustworthy.

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