Trust-Building in Public Health: "There is no one-size-fits-all approach."

April 26, 2024

An interview with Elizabeth Harris, behavioral scientist and social psychologist, and ARTT researcher.

Over the last few months, the ARTT team has spent a lot of time talking to health communicators about the challenges they navigate as they work to keep local, online communities more informed. Today, we’re chatting with Elizabeth Harris, a behavioral scientist and social psychologist. As a researcher with the Analysis and Response Toolkit for Trust (ARTT) project, Elizabeth has been leading interviews with health communicators, and shares what she’s learned so far, and what she’s excited about for the future of the ARTT project.

Tell us a little bit about your background. What led you to the ARTT team?

I completed my PhD in social psychology in 2022, where I focused on understanding when and why people share (mis)information on social media. In my first year after graduate school, I researched how to communicate effectively about science online.

Given my research interests, the ARTT project was a perfect fit for me!

What aspects of the ARTT project are most exciting to you?

I’m excited about helping health communicators shape their online messaging to better establish trust with their communities. We’ve reviewed research across multiple disciplines, including psychology, media literacy, and conflict resolution about the most effective ways to build trust in online conversation.

Next we consolidated all of that research into “tips” – communication strategies that health communicators can apply in their daily work. These tips are the basis for our software tool, the ARTT Guide.

I’m excited to get these research-backed strategies into the hands of people who need them!

You’ve been doing a lot of interviews with health communicators over the last six months. What are some of your key takeaways about the challenges facing health communicators?

Rumors and inaccurate health information spread quickly, and health communicators need to be able to respond equally quickly (or, ideally, address the inaccurate information before it becomes widespread).

However, responding to negative comments online takes a heavy emotional toll. It’s so difficult that many public health departments don’t respond at all, or limit comments on their posts, a practice that largely began during the height of Covid COVID-19.

I also consistently heard that trust-building in the public health space isn’t a one size fits all approach. Health communicators need to be able to create equitable, accessible messages for different audiences that have different needs.

How has this information shaped the ARTT Guide?

Incorporating this feedback, we’ve designed the ARTT Guide to help health communicators craft trust-building messages as quickly and easily as possible. We’ll provide a searchable library of verified sources and examples from other public health organizations to make the drafting process easier. To address the emotional toll, we’re building in some light social features so health communicators can support each other.

We also hope to add language translation and audience-specific recommendations in a later version of the app.

What guides your own work as we continue to build the ARTT Guide?

Health communicators have a vitally important and challenging job on the frontlines of keeping the public informed and safe. Through my interviews, I heard about the difficulties of trust-building and fast messaging, and I’m so excited we are able to assist with some of those difficulties with the ARTT Guide.

What’s your favorite obscure animal?

I’m a huge fan of quokkas because they’re super smiley and sociable. They live on an island off the coast of Australia and have no natural predators, so they’re not scared of people at all and have been known to walk right up for a selfie.

“Curious quokka twins.” Image by Tiomax80, from Wikimedia Commons. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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