This commentary offers a four-phase approach to COVID-19 health messages that reduces the use of ineffective fear appeals.
Developing and disseminating health communication messages in real time when there is uncertainty is a major challenge. Unfortunately, many messages have depended on a fear appeal, or scare tactic, which evidence has shown for decades is ineffective in getting people to engage in the recommended behavior changes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, fear appeal messages have led to a distrust in public health authorities, skepticism of all health messaging, lack of uptake of recommended behaviors, and several other unintended consequences. Although it is important to increase people’s perception of risk while simultaneously giving them the tools to increase efficacy, it is imperative that fear not be used because individuals begin to manage the fear instead of the actual threat. Instead of relying on fear appeals, health communication messages should first raise awareness of the need for suggested recommended behavior, second provide clear instructions on how to engage in the recommended behavior, and third integrate other public health messages to provide steps and resources for implementing the behavior. Other innovative, evidence-based approaches include carefully using entertainment-education, opinion leaders, celebrity appeals, and even humor to encourage people to engage in recommended behaviors. The authors present a phased health communication approach for increasing the likelihood of successful behavior change during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Phase 1: Identify and adopt already developed resources when possible
- Phase 2: Ensure that factors beyond the individual are being addressed
- Phase 3: Connect with and get feedback from the priority population
- Phase 4: Prepare for a future with COVID-19
It is important to consider the stress and fear that may be caused by health communication fear appeals and instead focus on systematic and innovative approaches to disseminate effective COVID-19 health messaging.