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How influential people can build trust during a pandemic

In a polarised environment identity matters more than it should, which is why anyone with an audience should be using their voice to build trust in the public response to Covid-19, says Jess Berentson-Shaw

Welcome to New Zealand's public health pandemic response, where everyone's an expert now.

There is actually a strange element of truth to this because for the general public, expertise is more about perception than actual expertise. Many types of people are trusted by the public to deliver an expert message. And what people who are trusted in their particular spheres of influence say has a significant influence on building public support for the action we need to stop the spread of Covid-19.

The role of experts in building trust

Expertise matters a lot in a world where information has been democratised, but understandings about complex issues are shallow. However, expertise doesn’t automatically confer trust or belief in facts in public communications. Depending on the context, actual expertise matters mostly to people who already understand your area of specialty and deeply value things like knowledge, curiosity, and innovation. This is not all people. In other words, expertise has resonance mainly in the context of what matters to the person listening to you and their existing understanding of the subject matter.

While it may be a blow to experts to realise such things, the silver lining is that research shows we can deepen people's understanding of an issue and build trust in science using many different messengers. If a wide range of people, including people who may surprise us, are supporting the expert advice, then there is a greater chance of the science sticking and people acting on it. In the case of Covid-19 the science is telling us to wash our hands, keep away from each other to take care of each other, and focus on ensuring strong community connections are built or rebuilt in the process of responding. So who should narrate that story to ensure people use good science to inform their decisions, if not experts alone?

Who do people trust?

Facts about Covid-19 and how to respond to it are not a stand alone story. Rather they are a character in a story we want to tell about what a pandemic is, how it can affect people and what we should do about it. The credibility of those facts relies on many different components, including trust in the narrator of the story, and sometimes the institution they represent.

Not everyone trusts politicians or the Prime Minister either. Not everyone trusts people in government, or in public health, not everyone trusts a woman scientist. Some of the reasons for this are based in stereotypes and shallow understandings.

People don’t need the off the cuff reactions of a football coach, but if they trust him they do need to hear him echo the message of public health officials, or at least say he is listening and trusts their advice.

In a polarised environment identity matters more than it should. Some people will have good reason to not trust a messenger. Previous encounters with people in government may have eroded trust. Likewise with healthcare providers, or scientists - while some people deeply trust a bearded scientist, another may only have had negative experiences with such people. Generally speaking if we can see that the person speaking shares our deeply held values, we are more likely to trust what they say, regardless of the institution they represent.

This is why the story needs to come from a range of narrators, be it people in business, ex politicians, church leaders. People don’t need the off the cuff reactions of a football coach, but if they trust him they do need to hear him echo the message of public health officials, or at least say he is listening and trusts their advice.

The story needs to be consistent from those messengers

If trust in politicians or in the institution of government is low, and research suggests it is, then rebuilding this needs to be an aim of an evidence-based pandemic strategy. Consistency in the message is key. Everyone paddling the waka in the same direction always makes for a better journey.

What helps build trust and engagement in the institution of government more widely is if people see collaboration across party political lines in times of difficulty, with a focus on collective values.

I have seen a few opinion pieces popping up from well known, influential, wealthy people critiquing the public health response. These are people with no public health expertise, no lived experience of health vulnerability, or other particular expert insights. Such pieces contribute to a confused public narrative and confusion is sown about what the science actually says.This makes it much less likely to be trusted and followed. Certainly we have seen this happen in climate change in the last decade. Better that such pieces remain unpublished.

What about party politics?

What impact does messaging from opposition politicians have on the public's willingness to trust people in the political institutions? With low trust in politicians, and in a polarised social environment there is real risk from partisan politics during a crisis like this. What helps build trust and engagement in the institution of government more widely is if people see collaboration across party political lines in times of difficulty, with a focus on collective values.

For an opposition, how does this research fit with their role in holding government to account? It is difficult to know, but the general intention from all people in politics should be focused on building trust in government to ensure that the public is more likely to take action for collective wellbeing.  When questioning policies and plans from opposition, trust is more likely to be built if the public can tell that the lens through which critique is being driven is one of community connection and long term wellbeing, as I suggested last week.

In a situation of ambiguity we also need to build tolerance for it
Pandemics are unique and a very particular type of crisis. What is known about a virus like Covid-19 can change rapidly, hour to hour even, as new data is produced. People in public health, and as a consequence, the Government have to pivot rapidly. This is the strength of having good data and science; it allows us to respond and innovate. In an environment where there is little tolerance for risk taking or experimentation by people in government this can be tricky. It is important to deepen the public’s understanding of the complexity of the science that is involved and build their confidence. So when rapid switches are made they are not a source for panic. Trusted and influential messengers across communities can help do this.

Trusted people must do their part in this collective response
At this time people trusted and influential in their own communities need to use their influence to build trust in the public health response, a key pillar in getting through this well together.

If you are a trusted or influential person your part of our collective response should be to use that social capital responsibly.

That doesn't mean people who are in an informed position on science shouldn't ask "is this the best science?". In the UK, for example, people in government were stepping outside the bounds of the evidence-led pandemic response of other countries such as South Korea and New Zealand. The impact of that on individuals who have little influence or power need to be raised. As I said earlier the lens through which this critique is offered will be critical in such cases.

An effective and responsible pandemic response is a collective one. It hinges on trust and a belief in what is officially recommended should be followed. That trust and belief is built by many different people. If you are a trusted or influential person your part of our collective response should be to use that social capital responsibly.

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