Build Public Trust in Your COVID-19 Communications Efforts

By Stephanie Nguyen, Kaela Gallo, Courtney Pitman

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is again facing uncontrolled growth in case burden. A glimpse at color-coded state COVID trackers returns a map in a sea of red. While the vast majority of Americans are paying attention to information about COVID-19, quickly changing insights and sometimes conflicting messages are causing a swirl of confusion. People are struggling to know how to access trustworthy and credible sources for COVID-related topics, including guidance on how to travel, how many feet to distance between people, and where to get a test.

In an effort to address these challenges, our team at U.S. Digital Response created a COVID-19 communications toolkit for local, state, and federal governments. This toolkit provides insights based on nationwide, primary, qualitative research and equips governments with action steps to better strategize their COVID-19 communications. The toolkit includes:

  1. A Trust Communication Model: How COVID-19 information flows from generators to community members
  2. Draft Personas: Key stakeholders in the COVID-19 information sharing ecosystem
  3. COVID-19 communications design principles

The toolkit, complete with all research and recommendations, can be found here.


State, local, and federal officials are racing to effectively communicate public health guidelines and policies to their constituents. In order to do this, they’re trying to understand the habits, behaviors, and challenges related to the consumption of COVID-19 information. They’re especially seeking insights about under-resourced and at-risk populations, like essential workers, those who speak English as a second language, and those who may have other barriers to access information (transportation disadvantaged, individuals experiencing homelessness, those with chronic medical disorders, etc.).

USDR launched a discovery sprint in late November focused on these at-risk community members to understand the following key research questions:

  1. Channels: Where do people go for trusted and credible COVID information?
  2. User value: What information is valuable and why?
  3. Action: Once people have valuable information, what do they do with it? How does it help them make decisions, change their habits, feel more informed, etc.?


USDR applied two research methods: one-on-one semi-structured remote interviews and a quantitative landscape review. Our goal was to ensure that we could utilize qualitative and quantitative data to gain a fuller picture of how different people consume information about COVID-19 in their communities.

In the course of five days, our sprint team conducted a landscape review with more than 16 national survey reports and spoke with 39 individuals across 19 states. These individuals represented diverse roles and perspectives, including:

  • An ABC liquor store employee in Virginia
  • A county bus driver in Illinois
  • A minister and leader of a Taiwanese Church in Massachusetts
  • A school psychologist for a charter school in Michigan
  • A technical support staff member for a child care center in Louisiana
  • A mother of a special needs child currently living on disability in New Jersey
  • A Black COVID task force community organizer and activist in California
  • A Burmese and youth activist in North Carolina
  • A children’s librarian in Massachusetts
  • A city waste and sanitation essential employee in Washington
  • A Vietnamese refugee, government employee and goat farmer in Virginia
  • A palliative care nurse in Georgia
  • A grocery store employee and Farmer’s Market manager in Oregon
  • A Salvadoran immigrant in North Carolina (Spanish-speaking only)
  • A Cambodian community healthcare physician in California
  • A small business owner producing outdoor concerts in Wyoming

There is no doubt this pandemic has had far reaching effects beyond people’s physical health. We are not looking at COVID data and information in a vacuum and cannot downplay the immense impact of the last year on individuals’ and communities’ mental, emotional, social, and financial health. All of these factors influence the way people look at, react to, and interpret COVID news and data. We hope this work brings more nuance and guides your thinking and actions on top of all of the information, news, headlines, and data you are hearing about the pandemic.

USDR Health Program

The 39 Voices research sprint is one part of USDR’s dedicated health program to help state and local governments meet the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis. Using our existing rapid response model to deliver fast and free support, USDR’s health program assists with COVID-19 testing, exposure notifications apps, public health communications strategies, vaccine distribution, and more. See here for a full menu of USDR’s health-focused offerings.

Beyond these free resources, USDR is also available for pro-bono consulting to help implement successful communications and address other COVID-related challenges. Governments in need of assistance can fill out this brief form to connect with USDR, and we’ll get back to them within hours.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the incredible people who contributed to this initiative. First, to the 39 participants from around the country who took time out of their schedules to contribute their stories and experiences with this effort. And, of course, to the brilliant team of dedicated volunteers: Kaela Gallo, Courtney Pitman, Zuzana Love, Raph Lee, Amulya Aradhyula, Rebecca Sinclair, Adam Little.




U.S. Digital Response (USDR) places experienced, pro-bono technologists to work with government and organizations responding to crisis, to quickly deliver services and infrastructure that support the critical needs of the public. We’re nonpartisan, fast, and free.

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U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.

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