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Introspection On COVID-19 Communication + the End of 2021

A lot of public health changes have happened at the end of 2021, so we thought it seemed like a good time to reflect on how emergency communication principles such as using simple messages, credible sources, consistent messages, and other insights have been actualized. How have these principles been put into practice (or not put into practice) in our second year of COVID-19? Where do we have the opportunity to grow as communicators still? Let’s take a look at a few year-end events.

COVID-19 Testing and Schools

A big part of an effective message is its actionability. We don’t want people to just be able to find and understand information but act on it. But what to do when the process isn’t doable? Here in Chicago, we saw piles and piles of COVID tests around FedEx boxes around the city this last week of the year. Parents tried hard to follow the plan, but clearly the plan wasn’t actually actionable.

This is a common challenge we see in our work — even if we can get the message easy to digest, is it realistic and doable? Have we really thought through the experience of the reader?

At the Clear Language Lab, we frequently ask A LOT of questions when writing about policies or processes — oftentimes, the policies or processes themselves haven’t been fleshed out fully in the first place. So while we can definitely write it more clearly, it still won't necessarily be easier for people to do.

We must examine the policies and processes that we are writing about through the lens of our audience. We can’t write only about idealized conditions rather than reality and then shrug our shoulders when actions can’t be completed or, worse, blame our audience for not taking action.

Account for scenarios people will actually encounter, not just idealized versions.

Changing (and Complicated) Guidelines

The changing COVID-19 isolation guidelines have caused a lot of debate these last weeks of the year. Below is the CDC press release that people are referred to on the CDC’s website (as of this writing) who go looking for information about isolation updates:

Press release from the CDC about COVID-19 isolation updates including several paragraphs of dense text.
Who is the audience? Journalists? Community members? Public health professionals?

This example epitomizes a common challenge we see often in our work: complicated information at the top spreading out. It isn’t uncommon for us to hear about people working at the local level explaining that they never made content more accessible because they weren’t confident they understood the nuances fully themselves.

So we end up with people at various levels and places expending energy to make sense of the same content (and, fingers crossed, hopefully coming to the same understanding!)

The isolation guidelines changes in these final days of the year also felt sudden to many. It was hard not to draw a connection between pleas of industry to loosen guidelines and the science driven changes when they are so similar. This sudden shift was reminiscent of the changing rules about masks earlier in the year that caused dismay for many at the seemingly abrupt shifts that confused many.

On top of all of that, the most recent changes were also done over the winter break when many schools are closed, meaning a lot of educators and parents had to scramble to understand the changes and update policies rather quickly.

Summary Alas, the year 2021 ended with the memeification of new COVID-19 messaging and a slew of predictions of absurd health recommendations to come in the new year. (On a bright note: a recent study did show that memes may be able to help people deal with the stress of COVID-19 - so there’s that!)

In all seriousness, the last two years have been undeniably hard. People are having to make decisions on the fly that they never imagined that they would have to make — often with limited resources, information, time, and mental bandwidth.

Here’s hoping for communication embedded with compassion, nuance, honesty, clarity, and actionability in 2022. We’ll see you there.

Interested in learning more about our work? Check out our upcoming events at



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