Communicating Recommendations in Public Health Emergencies: The Role of Public Health Authorities

Health Secur. 2020 Jan/Feb;18(1):21-28. doi: 10.1089/hs.2019.0073.


Adherence to public health recommendations is critical for public safety and well-being. Effective and appropriate communication plays an important role in whether populations trust government and public health authorities, and the extent to which people follow public health recommendations. Poor trust in communication from public health authorities can pose significant challenges for mitigating public health emergencies and maintaining health security. This study aimed to explore the importance of trust in and understanding of communication from public health authorities in improving adherence to public health recommendations, and how that communication can be improved to develop and maintain public trust, particularly in the context of public health emergencies. To understand which factors are important for public trust in communication from public health authorities, we conducted in-depth interviews (n = 25) with a racially and demographically diverse group of individuals living in Baltimore. We found that communication source and communication transparency, such as timeliness, completeness, and clarity of information, were critical constructs of trust in communication from public health authorities. We also found that many participants misunderstood the flow of information from public health authorities to news media, and many were unaware that public health authorities provide the most reliable source of health information and recommendations during a public health emergency. To ensure adherence to public health recommendations, the public needs to trust that public health authorities are providing accurate, practical, and prudent recommendations. Drawing on these results, we provide several recommendations for developing and optimizing communication from various public health authorities.

Keywords: Public health preparedness/response; Public trust; Risk communication.

MeSH terms

  • Baltimore
  • Civil Defense / organization & administration
  • Communication*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Disaster Planning / organization & administration
  • Emergencies*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Mass Media
  • Public Health*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Trust*