CCC virtual discussion offers strategies for communicating with at-risk constituents during a crisis

April 27, 2020

graphic with image of coronavirus

As officials work to slow the spread of COVID-19, they are tasked with keeping communities informed about the latest science and safety protocols, while dispelling myths about the virus that are proliferating across social media platforms. Relaying accurate information can be especially challenging in underserved communities of color, which have been particularly hard hit by the novel coronavirus.

“What folks are looking for is trusted messengers delivering trusted messages,” said Pennsylvania state Senator Vincent Hughes, who joined medical experts and communications strategists for an hour-long virtual discussion that explored approaches for reaching out to constituents during the current pandemic. The panel was hosted by CSG East’s Council on Communities of Color in conjunction with Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that assists communities with disaster-response efforts.

Data have shown that economic disparities and underlying health and environmental factors have caused COVID-19 to have disproportionate impacts on communities of color. Those risk factors underscore the need to relay fast, accurate information to the public to slow the transmission of disease. This urgency is amplified in neighborhoods with a history of neglect and lack of access to proper medical care, where suspicions of government institutions and elected officials run high.

“People remember when there was a time when they experimented on the black community,” said Ivan Walks, a primary-care doctor who directs the Washington, D.C. Department of Health. “When I had to deal with anthrax in D.C., what I [heard] in my community was, ‘This is like Tuskegee.’”

The importance of trust

Walks was referring to the infamous 40-year syphilis study on 600 black men conducted by the Tuskegee Institute, in conjunction with the federal government. The researchers who led the study did not inform the men of its true purpose and withheld treatment, and their actions resulted in widespread suffering and deaths that could have been avoided. The experiment sparked a deep mistrust of public health officials among many African Americans.

Walks said that elected officials who are known and respected in a community can work to overcome this mistrust by personally vouching for government leaders and health officials and hosting public events with them.

He pointed to a virtual town hall held by Senator Hughes last Thursday to help constituents apply for federal stimulus checks. Some 2,000 people attended the event. Hughes invited speakers from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. Walks said the IRS is not typically a trusted member of the community, but people were willing to listen to a representative from the agency because Hughes asked him to come.

“He is the one who is trading on his credibility when he brings them in. So people in the community will say, ‘Hey, they’re coming in with someone who we know. We’ll let him in.’”

Local religious institutions and other trusted organizations also play an important role in distributing information and resources. They can provide “easily digestible” information about COVID-19 to counter the misinformation that can travel quickly across the Internet, and help people access life-saving services such as dialysis and diabetes treatments, said Nicolette Louissant, executive director of Healthcare Ready.

The pandemic has taken a large toll on many houses of worship, whose extensive neighborhood connections can enable them to check in on vulnerable households, even when they are barred from holding public gatherings. Their services are needed now more than ever, said Louissant.

“The more that we support the ability to extend the capacities [of] those existing organizations that have those reaches and have those tentacles in the communities, the more we can see who is left out,” she said.

Louissant recalled the devastation following Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017, followed by four months of a “prolonged response” that extended into flu and mudslide season, which caused extended hardship for many residents. The experience underscored the need to be proactive and prepare for additional events that could hamper recovery and further complicate the relief effort.

“There is no such thing as a disaster that happens in a vacuum,” said Louissant. “We have to do a long-term recovery plan. And that is something that we don’t do well in this country.”

The racial wealth gap

During the discussion, panelists said the health crisis is amplifying the challenges facing businesses in underserved communities, which have trouble accessing capital even in flush times.

“What is specifically happening to black-owned businesses is what always happens to us. This is not new,” said Tara Dowdell, who runs a strategic communications and marketing agency that works with socially conscious businesses and organizations. “The disparity that exists, the financial and racial wealth gap is basically the same as we’re seeing now. We’ve always struggled to get the resources that other businesses get.”

Dowdell said that as small businesses apply for stimulus funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), authorized by the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act package that Congress enacted last month, policymakers need to pressure banks to lend funds to businesses in underserved communities. Banks need to be certified by the Small Business Association to participate in the program.

The rollout of the first round of funding, totaling $349 million, was criticized for a lack of transparency and loopholes that enabled large, public companies to secure funds ahead of small businesses, many of whom were shut out of the program before it ran out of money 13 days after it launched. Much of the money reportedly went to larger banks that lent to big companies seeking sizeable loans or with whom they had existing relationships. Some of those companies returned the money after public pressure, which is a testament to the important watchdog role that the media can play, said Dowdell.

Policymakers should seize the opportunity to keep the public focused on improving the transparency and fairness of the process as businesses apply for $310 billion in additional funding that was authorized by President Trump last Friday, she said.

“We can use the media to drive the conversation, to put a spotlight on the issues,” said Dowdell. “We’re not going to have this chance again until the next crisis.”

You can access a recording of “COVID Communications: How to Talk to Your Communities During a Pandemic” on the CCC COVID-19 Micro-Summit Project page. The panel is among a variety of virtual resources that CSG East is offering state officials to help them effectively communicate with constituents during this unprecedented health and economic crisis.

For more information, please contact CSG East Senior Policy Analyst Debbie Paige: / 646.823.3386.

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