Understanding the reception of public health messages in public-facing communications is of key importance to health agencies in managing crises, pandemics, and other health threats. Established public health communications strategies including self-efficacy messaging, fear appeals, and moralising messaging were all used during the Coronavirus pandemic. We explore the reception of public health messages to understand the efficacy of these established messaging strategies in the COVID-19 context. Taking a community-focussed approach, we combine a corpus linguistic analysis with methods of wider engagement, namely, a public survey and interactions with a Public Involvement Panel to analyse this type of real-world public health discourse. Our findings indicate that effective health messaging content provides manageable instructions, which inspire public confidence that following the guidance is worthwhile. Messaging that appeals to the audience's morals or fears in order to provide a rationale for compliance can be polarising and divisive, producing a strongly negative emotional response from the public and potentially undermining social cohesion. Provenance of the messaging alongside text-external political factors also have an influence on messaging uptake. In addition, our findings highlight key differences in messaging uptake by audience age, which demonstrates the importance of tailored communications and the need to seek public feedback to test the efficacy of messaging with the relevant demographics. Our study illustrates the value of corpus linguistics to public health agencies and health communications professionals, and we share our recommendations for improving the public health messaging both in the context of the ongoing pandemic and for future novel and re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks.
McClaughlin, E., Vilar-Lluch, S., Parnell, T., Knight, D., Nichele, E., Adolphs, S., …Schiazza, G. (2023). The reception of public health messages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Applied Corpus Linguistics, 3(1), Article 100037. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acorp.2022.100037