Resiliency, Communication, and Partnerships: Insights From the de Beaumont Foundation

June 30, 2021 | Mattie Quinn

illustration-audience-segmentation_1200x740.jpgThroughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the de Beaumont Foundation has worked closely with organizations like ASTHO to support and strengthen public health. The foundation has produced several publications and guides to support public health leaders in their efforts to inform the public about COVID-19 and help build confidence in vaccines. In our June blog post, Mark Miller, vice president of communications with the de Beaumont Foundation, shares insights into the foundation’s response efforts to COVID-19, and its partnership with key stakeholders.

How has the de Beaumont Foundation supported the public health workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Providing practical tools to help state and local health officials serve their communities is central to achieving our mission at the de Beaumont Foundation is. Before the pandemic, we had already been working on the PHRASES toolkit to help practitioners communicate better and build better partnerships with other sectors. Once the pandemic started, we placed even greater emphasis on communications, including conducting polling and focus groups to develop messaging to build confidence in COVID-19 guidance and vaccines. That’s just one way we’ve continued our mission to build support and advocate for funding for state and local public health.

What are some of the obstacles to vaccine acceptance?

Safety concerns, misinformation, and distrust of the government, to name a few. What we see from our own work and other research is that safety is the number one concern, especially because the vaccines were developed so quickly. We’ve found it useful to explain that the government didn’t cut corners—they cut red tape to make the vaccines available as quickly as possible.

Also, there’s so much misinformation being spread that it’s hard to keep up with, but the best defense is a good offense, so it’s important for health officials and others to keep getting the facts out through every possible channel. The antidote to misinformation is facts from credible and trusted sources. That’s why health officials are so critical because they are trusted and credible in their own communities.

What advice do you have for public health people as they communicate about vaccines and other COVID-related issues?

First, leverage your relationships with the professionals who people trust the most on these issues, particularly physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and other medical professionals. A recent AMA survey showed that 96% of physicians have been vaccinated—that’s a powerful figure, and physicians should tell their patients why they trust the safety of the vaccines for them and their families.

Second, as much as possible, be positive. Focus on the benefits of getting vaccinated, and not just the risks of not being vaccinated.

Finally, recognize that it’s natural for people to have concerns about a brand-new vaccine for a brand-new disease, and people who haven’t been vaccinated don’t want to be told what to do. Whether you’re talking to rural Republicans or communities of color, respect that this is a personal decision and take time to answer questions without judgment.

What have we learned from the pandemic that can help public health professionals be more effective?

For me, that comes back to communications. I’m hopeful that after seeing what worked and what didn’t work at the national and local levels, public health professionals can improve the effectiveness of their communication about important health issues and build trust in their communities. Messages matter, and they need to be clear and consistent. And when you don’t know the answer to something, it’s better to acknowledge that instead of speculating. It is also critically important that health officials continue to be visible to the public. Officials who have started engaging through Facebook, Instagram, or regular community briefings on the pandemic, they should evolve them to meet ongoing needs. Disaster response moves at the speed of trust, and this is the time to build that trust.

The research and message development you’ve done has clearly made a national impact. How else has the de Beaumont Foundation helped states during the pandemic?

In addition to our polling, focus groups, and messaging, we also launched the Public Health Communications Collaborative in partnership with the CDC Foundation, Trust for America’s Health, APHA, ASTHO, NACCHO, the Big Cities Health Coalition, PATH, and Resolve to Save Lives. PHCC hosts monthly webinars on timely communications issues and provides resources that many state and local officials have found useful in their outreach.

At the suggestion of Dr. Anne Zink of Alaska, we developed a messaging toolkit for physicians that has been very successful. We provided COVID response grants to ASTHO, the American Association of Health Laboratories, and Trust for America’s Health. We worked with Soledad O’Brien to produce Outbreak: The First Response, a documentary on the first U.S. outbreak. Among the resources we’ve created are a guide to improving mental health services with Well Being Trust and a report that outlines ways businesses can strengthen the health of communities, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Productivity Studies.

This year, we’re also repeating the PH WINS survey to collect important information from state and local public health employees. This data will help health officials understand the state of their workforce and how to address state-specific needs, and will help federal agencies and elected officials better understand public health needs.

On a personal note, what did COVID-19 teach you about yourself? 

I’m much more aware of the importance of relationships and personal connections in my professional work. I’m typically comfortable solving problems and getting work done independently, or at least within my organization. But one of the most rewarding parts of the past year has been cooperating and sharing information with other organizations and connecting with new people professionally and personally.