The Public’s Perceptions of Government Officials’ Communication in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic
In March 2020,
the World Health Organization (2020)
declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Shortly thereafter, the US President declared the
virus outbreak a national emergency effective March 1, 2020. Cities and states
throughout the country, starting on the West Coast and expanding to the East
Coast, South and other regions, moved forward with issuing stay-at-home orders
in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Coupled with the
stay-at-home orders at the local and state levels were social distancing
guidelines from the federal level of government. Although not much information
was available in regards to COVID-19 testing at that time, testing yielded
considerable attention as media organizations began reporting on the new pandemic
as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country started increasing at a rapid
News stories at
the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic often included information from government
officials about confirmed cases, the virus’ rate of spread, testing availability
and COVID-19-related deaths. Additionally, synopses of the press briefings and
news stories about the pandemic were regularly featured through radio and TV
broadcasts, traditional newspapers, news websites and various social media news
A 2018 Pew
Research Center study showed that a majority of the respondents believed that
both the federal government and news media withheld information that could be
useful to the public.
findings also revealed a decline in public trust in government among Americans
over the past 20 years, according to 75% of the survey respondents. Additionally,
64% of the respondents agreed that low trust makes it difficult for the country
to solve problems. While media serve an important role in message dissemination
during crises, it is equally important for the public to trust the sources of
conducted by Pew Research Center in April 2020 revealed that while stories
about COVID-19 received heavy attention from national media, local media also
proved to be a relied-upon avenue for virus-related information.
reported that 61% of survey respondents followed both national and local news
for COVID-19 news. Of that, 23% reported that they followed local media for
COVID-19 information more than national news.
At the onset of
the pandemic, official communication about COVID-19 generally came from city
mayors and county/town presidents at the local level, governors at the state
level and the US President at the federal level. Considering the vast amount of
information released through media from the local, state and federal levels of
government and other sources, the present study examined the perceived
credibility of officials during a crisis to determine whether perceptions
differed according to government level, and the influence of message exposure
on credibility perceptions of government officials.
this study examined whether credibility perceptions of government officials
influenced respondents’ behaviour regarding adherence to the stay-at-home
order, social distancing and COVID-19 testing. Finally, the study employed
Source Credibility and Situational Crisis Communication theories to investigate
whether pre-established trust influences credibility perceptions of government
officials during a crisis. Demographic data were also collected.
There are also
practical implications of this study because it offers valuable insight
regarding communication strategies that government officials should implement
at the onset of a crisis. These strategies were determined based on how the
public perceived the government both before and during the first stay-at-home
order of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US.
This article was feature in the special issue "Innovative Communication Strategies for Current and Future Pandemics"