What started as a public health story quickly shifted to a political one

In this “new normal”, people are being forced to reprioritize life’s basic requirements and reevaluate how they want to live, work and communicate. The challenge at hand is monumental, and what is making it more difficult is the fact that many disagree on the pathway forward. What’s more, nearly every difficult decision we are facing in terms of how to combat this virus has become politically divisive.

You would think that a public health crisis would be immune from partisan politics. But then again, what major news story in this election year hasn’t been injected with political posturing in some form or fashion? Clearly, public perceptions of COVID-19 and the response to it differ, sometimes greatly, depending on their political preferences and the particular echo chamber they are living in. 

But what does this mean for healthcare marketers who are now faced with the formidable task of communicating with their audience of consumers amidst the growing tension and political polarization? In this article, we propose foundational principles upon which effective marketing messages can be crafted while helping us avoid getting swept up in the political turbulence that is currently rocking the proverbial boat. 

The polarization is palpable

At this particular moment in time, as we approach the presidential election in November, the extreme political polarization in this country is palpable. The evidence for such extreme and pervasive polarization is the manner by which nearly every opinion and every issue related to the coronavirus is framed in political terms.

Here are just a few of the issues with regard to the government’s COVID-19 response that have been politicized in some form or fashion. 

  • Social gatherings
  • Masks
  • Testing and contact tracing
  • Economic shut down (length and severity)
  • Essential vs. non-essential businesses
  • Opening the economy
  • Going back to school
  • Stimulus for all citizens
  • Use of treatment i.e., Hydroxychloroquine
  • Vaccinations

The political divide over COVID is completely unnecessary, but nonetheless, it’s here and it’s real. The issue is multi-layered and complex, but for simplicity’s sake, this is how many are making sense of the division: Republicans aren’t taking the virus seriously, while Democrats are taking it too far. Again, this is a dramatic simplification of the current division we are experiencing, but I think many would agree with the fundamental sentiment behind this assertion. Generally speaking, Republicans are afraid of government overreach and believe that the media is engaging in “fear mongering”. Democrats are fearful of the public health risks of the virus and believe we’re not taking seriously enough our social responsibility to mitigate risks and save lives.

Recent polling from Civiqs asked respondents if they were “extremely concerned” about the coronavirus. The divide between Democrats and Republicans, respectively, is 63 percent to 10 percent. Likewise, just 2 percent of Democrats are “not concerned at all”, while 38 percent of Republicans fall into this category. 

Fighting to preserve our cultural identity

As beliefs about the threat posed by COVID-19 (along with the response efforts) become more and more politicized, we’ve seen a clear widening of the gap between the two sides of the political spectrum. A recent article by the Intelligencer, suggests that the growing division might be due in part to our struggle as individuals to protect and preserve our cultural identity. The article points to a theory called cultural cognition, to explain that cultural values can influence public perception of risk on prominent politically charged issues and shape beliefs about related policies. The research into cultural cognition, which draws from a variety of disciplines, “refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities.” Views on issues like climate change, for example, have become so intertwined with political identification that opposing viewpoints not only challenge our core beliefs but become a threat to our social and political identity. “Their identity serves as something of an anchor, preventing their opinion from drifting too far from where it presently sits.” 

Providing guidance amidst growing tension, division and political polarization

As the politicization and polarization ramp up, there is growing resistance and even resentment from many as things grow more desperate economically and divided politically.

  • How can we play a role in easing the tension and preventing the political flames of division from raging out of control and negatively impacting our efforts to engage and activate our audience?
  • How can we provide practical and responsible guidance to our diverse community of consumers without diminishing or threatening the core values that shape their very identity?

Below we’ve outlined a few keys to delivering meaningful healthcare messaging in a highly sensitive and politically charged atmosphere. 

6 Keys to Healthcare Messaging in the Midst of COVID-19

Be empathic

Healthcare messaging just like healthcare delivery should be driven by deep empathy. Empathy is rich and multilayered. It requires us to be kind, sensitive, respectful, and to demonstrate a certain level of social and cultural awareness – but perhaps most importantly it requires us to listen. Consumers want and need to know that they are being heard. We need to show that we respect the views of our key constituents and empathize with their current understanding.

Find ‘emotional’ connection points

We don’t have to be unified, we just need to be connected. Connecting with consumers requires an ability to understand and empathize with their situation, and to relate to them on an emotional level. We don’t need to believe all of the same things about this virus and the public health policies that are in place to address the virus. We can respectfully disagree, and as a matter of fact, we often learn something when we talk to those with whom we disagree. We should perceive (and even position) disagreement as a “healthy exchange” and an opportunity for learning and growth. 

Identify (and reflect) shared values

Participate in the positive and healthy practice of reducing the emotional distance that’s been created between us in recent months. Identify the values that you share with your customers and fulfill the expression of those values in your communications (actions, words, symbols and images). 

Appeal to basic human needs

Self-actualization sits at the apex of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Self-actualization is essentially about becoming the best version of ourselves – rising up to fulfill our true potential. It seems this is where much of modern day marketing has focused its messaging in recent decades. The messages we have grown accustomed to seeing in mainstream media and blasted across social media are largely pushing messages of empowerment, self-confidence, personal fulfillment and other concepts that relate to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. The current global health crisis along with the elements of revolution we see bubbling to the surface in today’s heated cultural climate will, in effect, push the collective needs of our society back down towards the bottom of the pyramid.  As a result, we are being forced to focus our thinking and energy much more on physical, emotional, economic, and political stability and security. 

Remove morality from messaging

There shouldn’t be a moral component to directing behavior change, especially in a highly charged and politicized climate. Perhaps health-related messaging can be communicated more effectively if the emphasis is on a necessary adjustment of behavior to pandemic conditions rather than on behaving correctly or “doing the right thing.” It’s going be better received if the focus of the message is on helping someone adjust to these new restrictions rather than urging that person to practice good or proper behavior. 

Close the gap by finding common ground. 

The loudest and often the most influential voices are the ones at the extremes of the political divide, but the reality is that the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. In other words, many view COVID-19 as a serious threat to public health and simultaneously hold concerns about government overreach. Messaging to a deeply divided audience should incorporate this reality.  Remember, “common ground” is fertile ground for making a connection and building relationships. 

Below are some thoughts on how we might begin the arduous journey of closing the emotional, cultural and political gap that is currently dividing much of the country:

  • Avoid divisive language and be intentional about the language that you do use. This has become harder and harder in a reality where just about everything related to this public health and economic crisis has been politicized. 
  • Learn the language of your customers. Listen to the words they are using to describe their sentiments and experiences during this difficult time. Think about creating a common language with your audience, with connective tissue that affirms the existence of shared values. 
  • Ensure emotional, social and cultural sensitivity. Consumers will be more receptive to messages that demonstrate knowledge of and sensitivity to their background and circumstances.
  • Shape your communications to address the cultural realities, specific preferences and sensitivities of various demographics.
  • Healthcare messaging and engagement efforts need to not just rise and embrace diversity and equality for all, but they also need to be sensitive to and proactive about the emotional well-being of individuals. They may be suffering from stress or trauma related to COVID-19 (financial stress, safety and security concerns, loneliness, fear and anxiety).

Close the distance through connection

Closing the distance between us is going to be extremely challenging in a world where we are quite literally being separated from each other and ordered to stay apart. Add fear, anxiety and extreme political polarization and we’ve got ourselves quite the challenge in front of us as healthcare marketers. We believe that the key to reaching and impacting your customer, is first connecting with them on an emotional level through shared values. When everything is political, we learn to trust nothing. When every single belief, opinion or even small gesture becomes injected with political meaning it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hold society together. While achieving unity and solidarity with the customers we serve might be an impossibility, we still have an opportunity to find connection. 

Cultural cognition theorists tell us that our beliefs and ultimately our behaviors (as it relates to prominent and politically charged issues) are driven to a large extent by the values that form or define our cultural identities. We can identify meaningful connection points with consumers by learning what we can about their core values. If we can identify and communicate a commitment to shared values like respect, honesty, and compassion for others, then our messaging will be more likely to resonate with consumers on an emotional level. 

In case you missed it, LIFT just published an in-depth report on the lived experiences and sentiment of American healthcare consumers and HCPs amidst the pandemic. It’s packed with relevant and actionable insights … you don’t want to miss it. Get your copy here. 

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