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Prioritizing Authoritative Content During COVID-19

Important new strategies for elevating evidence-based public health information

Lindsay Burack
Lindsay Burack
Christine Alden
Christine Alden

The rapid onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a bewildering swarm of information about all aspects of the virus, and its impact. But, “caveat lector (let the reader beware)”, fact-based information is often not what reaches the public. In critical times like this, science has the opportunity to step forward and provide trusted clarity and credibility. In the United States, the public has access to some of the foremost sources of accurate and trustworthy online medical content through government organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), world-renowned medical organizations such as Mayo Clinic, and leading university medical centers like Johns Hopkins University but the important revelations and advice of these scientific communities often doesn’t make it to the public it is designed to support.

Catch our expert discussion on delivering evidence-based information in the era of misinformation

During this online discussion, we address the glaring issues: The role of the government. How to challenge this dissemination of health content. The future of health communications.

You can play a full version of the online discussion here.

Accurate information is getting buried online. Public health organizations’ publishing and distribution strategies are responding by targeting their information more precisely to audiences when they need it and at the point of care.  

It is no longer sufficient to wait for information seekers to find reliable content; it is critical for public health organizations to deliver their content to audiences who need it, when they need it, in a way they can easily access it and use it.

There is urgency to get this right. The consequences of failing are severe and already upon us. For instance, the Pew Research Center recently issued a report titled, “Americans who primarily get news through social media are least likely to follow COVID-19 coverage, most likely to report seeing made-up news.”


This is about more than just social media and search

How people look for information, and where and how quickly they expect to find it, is all shifting rapidly. In the era of COVID-19, a clear over-abundance of mid-value content, created and distributed by millions of people (and in some cases machines) on a by-minute basis, has accelerated this evolution to entirely new levels of complexity while creating a significant new governmental challenge.

Our instant access culture has prioritized the concept of the search engine "snippet" — the 1-3 sentence blurb search engines scrape from the internet and deliver to users to offer quick answers to common questions.

For the ordinary user in ordinary circumstances, snippets are generally helpful. Instead of forcing users to navigate to a new webpage, voice-activated assistants can simply read an answer out loud in 10-20 seconds. These smaller abstractions of data, including "fragments", "handles", and "fraggles", are just some of the ways the major content aggregators are seeking to decompose, absorb, and repurpose information to meet our insatiable cultural appetite for on demand answers from our mobile devices, voice-driven assistants, and more.

Publicis Sapient’s government team has partnered with a number of U.S. government agencies and institutions to find new ways to ensure the public receives and absorbs evidence-based public health information in a timely fashion.

Over the past 10 years, new technologies and filtering algorithms have presented unprecedented digital barriers that require new strategies to ensure agencies can break through the cacophony of unreliable posts, tweets, websites, and forums that seek to share similar topical information.

More than ever before, people look to their smartphones for answers to critical questions. Instead of going to trusted websites or other direct sources of information, people are posing these questions to the major search engines, voice assistants, and each other. Convenience is queen.

However, COVID-19 has shown us that this convenience comes at a cost — especially when it comes to critical public health information. Fast answers, served up by ever-reprioritizing machines, do not always prioritize the evidence, accuracy, or nuance required when the topic is a critical public health emergency.

COVID-19 has shown us that this convenience comes at a cost — especially when it comes to critical public health information.

How do voice-activated assistants ensure answers come from credible, authoritative sources? How does your smartphone know which answers can be summarized in a few sentences and which are going to require additional context? These are situations where technology has advanced faster than the policies, content structure, and governance needed to fully vet its impact.

COVID-19 provided a test-bed environment that put the limitations of some of these tools on full display.

When it comes to evolving health topics, aggregators clearly need help discerning critical, up-to-date information. The traditional models used to weigh and prioritize source authority – digital publishing record, referrals and cross promotion models, frequency of content updates, depth, focus, and share of  voice around a specific frequently-asked question, as well as other evolving algorithms, do not necessarily support the traditional slower, steady, and reliable work of medical researchers that is so critical in a pandemic scenario.

Technical and scientific authorities must find new ways to distinguish critical guidance from well-optimized marketing and advertising copy designed to look technical.

This is not a quick fix. Agencies must invest in the human and technical resources and expertise required to stay relevant in a world that has universally prioritized fast access to information over more carefully acquired evidence-based knowledge.


Designing content that can be found

At Publicis Sapient, we start by partnering with clients to consider and address three initial constituent-centric questions:

Title: What Information is Your Audience Seeking

By understanding the value your agency provides to the public at large, it becomes easier to position your digital content strategy to align with the tools and resources the public is already using to vet what is worth their time and worthy of their trust and limited attention. Big data and Machine Learning advancements are making it easier than ever before to address the public’s concerns with confidence, but this process must start with context-relevant query information that allows agencies to work backwards from the final audience reception goal in order to provide more stakeholder value.

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Title: How Does Your Audience Search for, Find and Access Your Content and Information

In today’s complex media environment, digital channels are customized to the detailed preferences of the information consumer. Effective organizations are driving engagement and loyalty by allocating resources to understand where and how their audiences spend their time online. By syndicating content through the right channels at the right moments, experts are meeting their audiences when and where they are most receptive to the messages they seek to deliver.

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Title: How Does Your Content Perform Against Your Competition in What Audiences are Finding

By understanding what information is being provided to frequent queries today, agencies can develop public health communications that make complex information more immediately digestible to both humans and those machines that now run interference. By serving up new information in formats that are proven, organizations can skip to the head of the line when critical new content is ready to be made public.

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In order to help our clients develop an actionable roadmap that measurably increases the reception and amplification of their evidence-based publications, we recommend a series of formal assessments that address five critical considerations.

1. Environmental

What is the external environment for the kinds of content we seek to share? Which organizations are successfully breaking through? What kind of content packaging strategies are they using? Is there more than one entity behind a given push? What channels are producing the desired effect? How is the content being created and disseminated? Where is it being most readily consumed?

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2. Situational

What content from our portfolio is currently being found? Is the content we want to be found the material that rises to the top? Is our most relevant content optimized? What strategies can we deploy to replicate our successes and mitigate the areas where we have missed the mark?

3. Competitive

What information do audiences find in the current content that is available? How is the quality? How does that quality compare to what we offer? How do competitors fare in terms of search engine positioning? Have we considered the order in which our results appear? Can we ensure that our content appears in the "snippets"? Through what means can we improve?

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4. Granular

Given the results of the environmental scan and the competitive assessments, what needs to change about our content? Is it too scattered? Is it too long? Is it mobile-friendly? Is it search friendly? Is our content written in the most SEO-friendly way? Is our content useful for voice assistants? Is our content tailored for the specific questions that information seekers are entering into their searches?

5. Strategic

What gaps can we fill to elevate our relevance, authority, and impact? What are the pilot projects we can start to test options for addressing our gaps? We have too much content to fix all at once, what should we start with? What content is optimized for virtual assistants – in other words, what is already in Q&A format?

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These kinds of assessments, performed regularly, are critical to both modern digital authority management and future-ready mission preparedness for all medical and scientific agencies.

Staying vigilant and serving the public

In an environment where even basic facts can be left up for debate in virtual environments, it is critical for public health organizations and governmental entities to be able to break through and serve their audiences with critical, timely, and evidence-based information.

This is not a static problem; the only constant is that this situation is changing and evolving rapidly, with new challenges appearing every day. While publishing was once an after-thought, as research organizations prioritized their front-end information gathering efforts, today’s environment demands that communications strategies become an important part of the front-end planning discussion. By more directly matching evidence-based answers to the questions that stakeholders seek to have addressed, agencies can increase their relevance and better defend their mission.

Publicis Sapient is on the front lines of this effort and is developing comprehensive methodologies to transform federal content distribution systems. We’re working to ensure the right information reaches the right people at the right times. Nothing less will do.

Lindsay Burack
Lindsay Burack
Experience Lead
Christine Alden
Christine Alden
Program Director

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