Trust is contingent on, among other things, historical experience and delivered results. But the way the authorities communicate is also key. People assess competence, character, and the motives of the authorities. The coronavirus pandemic put the public's trust in the health authorities to the test. What was the outcome? Several surveys throughout the pandemic have shown that this trust remained relatively high. The high level of trust in the health authorities may be related to the relatively low death toll and broad political support for infection control measures. But communication and credibility also play a role in this context. It has been important for the health authorities to present knowledge, while at the same time admitting uncertainty. The research project "Pandemic rhetoric, trust and social media" (PAR-TS) has, among other things, investigated how the health authorities handled criticism of their competence, how Twitter users discussed the authorities' credibility, and what effect uncertainty communication has.
Based on the research of PAR-TS, implications for future risk and crisis communication strategies in pandemic outbreaks can be formulated. This relates to, for instance, how the public health authorities can meet criticism from medical experts; how uncertainty communication works, how to understand negotiations of trustworthiness, and what the drivers are for behavior in a pandemic. Having the Norwegian Institute of Public Health as a partner in the project, increases the potential uptake of the research findings.
PAR-TS will study 1) the current communication strategies of public health authorities, 2) the role of social media in the crisis; 3) reactions in the public in terms of trust (institutional, social, media), fear and behavioral change, and, finally, 4) potential risk/crisis communication strategies for future pandemic outbreaks. A cross-disciplinary team drawing on political science, media and communication studies, data science, health and civil society studies is put together. The project is based in three academic institutions – Dep. of Media and Communication (IMK), the Institute for Social Research (ISF), and SINTEF – in close collaboration with three key institutions in informing the public – the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), and the Association of Norwegian Editors (NR). In addition, two market research companies – Opinion and Kantar – are partners. Focusing on Norway as an empirical case, PAR-TS lays the ground for future comparative studies through the close interaction with a strong network of international scholars participating in an advisory board.
PAR-TS pulls together strong methodological expertise that is necessary to address the negotiations of trust between public authorities and citizens. Communication strategies are studied through interviews with communication personnel in the public health institutions and textual analysis of public communication. For the study of interactions in social media, a large scale quantitative and qualitative analysis will be conducted of discussions about corona and the health authorities’ handling of the crisis. Finally, population-based representative surveys before, during and after the crisis will enable the study of how citizens receive and act on information, centered on the roles of different types trust. The produced knowledge in PAR-TS will strengthen preparedness and handling of future risks and crisis.