Two-sided messages and pandemic flu
Hilyard, Karen M.
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This study investigates effective ways of persuading the public to follow two inherently-contradictory but critical government health directives during a flu pandemic. “Social distancing” asks people to avoid public gatherings and places, including work, school, worship services and sporting events; while a second government directive (referred to here as “public queuing”) calls for individuals to go to centralized public distribution centers for medicines and supplies. These inherently-contradictory and potentially-confusing public health directives may undermine the trust and credibility of government and health officials in a pandemic, leading many people to discount risks and disregard recommendations. To more effectively communicate the contradictory directives, this study explored the use of a two-sided message in which the “contradiction” was used as the negative attribute and justification of the contradiction was used as the counterargument. The study comprised two phases: exploratory one-on-one interviews with demographically-diverse individuals (N=19) followed by a 2 x 3, post-test-only experiment with a representative national probability sample (N=443). Qualitative phase investigated knowledge and perceptions about pandemic flu and pandemic policy; it also attempted to better explicate the dimensions of source credibility. Experimental treatment was a fictitious news article with “pre-event” messaging regarding pandemic flu. Treatment conditions included two-sided messages with refutational counterarguments, which have been shown historically to be more persuasive than other types of messages; two-sided messages with supporting arguments only; and one-sided messages. A quasi-control group that read an article about preventing seasonal colds and flu was also included. Independent variables were message order and message sidedness, and dependent variables were perceived source credibility of public health officials and behavioral intention to comply with public health directives in a pandemic.