Tikka, Härmä (2022): Building trust through locality: Communicative practices of Finnish healthcare communication experts

This paper examines the communicative practices of health communication experts aiming to build trust among their audiences during the COVID-19 epidemic in Finland. Starting in early 2020, the global pandemic has become an extended crisis and a condition of social reality (Roux-Dufort 2016). Instead of being merely an interruption to the everyday practices of healthcare communication experts, COVID-19 crisis has become a ‘terrain of action’ (Vigh 2008) where communicators’ have struggled to manage the continually emerging disease outbreaks, and changing restrictions and recommendations. These uncertain circumstances have compelled the communicators’ to generate new practices in order to cope with the situation.

Recent literature in risk and crisis communication has emphasized the role of trust in building bridges between the public and authorities and ensuring that citizens respond positively to communication of health experts (Boyd et al. 2019; Offerdal et al. 2021). Furthermore, studies have pointed out that crisis communication work is often shaped by several contextual challenges and opportunities, including the specific situation amidst a crisis as well as organizational and societal structures (Hayes et al. 2021; Liu & Horsley 2007).

This paper is based on a qualitative thematic-analysis of 18 semi-structured interviews among the communication experts of different healthcare districts in Finland. These districts vary in terms of their size of population, geo-cultural contexts and organizational structure. In general, Finnish citizens’ trust in authorities is regarded high and citizens have overall been satisfied with governmental actions on COVID-19 epidemic (Jallinoja & Väliverronen 2021).

The paper suggests that while the COVID-19 crisis is managed on the national level, acknowledging the local context is key in crisis communication. Identifying different demographic groups is essential in understanding the local context because the communication experts’ generate practices and filter information relevant to their audiences. Social media is often emphasized as the leading medium for communication during the COVID-19 pandemic (Kaya 2020). However, our study shows that health communicators rely on more various means of communication alongside social media, including collaboration with local media, organizing information events for the public and introducing local medical experts as recurrent spokespersons.

This paper contributes to international crisis communication research by reflecting on the notion of crisis as a condition, and arguing that communication experts draw on situational and regional resources in their efforts of building trust through diverse communicative practices.

Read full article on Aalto Research.