Tom Hipper


“Talk COVID to Me” – Transcript


If you want to blow up your communication efforts, and utterly ruin your response right out of the gate, the best thing you can do is to create mixed messages from sources who are supposed to be on the same team.

Welcome to Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast. Our goal is to mine the stories behind our region’s innovators, inventors, and thought creators. We’ll be talking to experts in subjects from dance to cybersecurity to find out what lies behind the passion for their work, the inspiration for their ideas, and the motivation for their creativity. I’m your host, Maurice Baynard.

Tom Hipper is an assistant professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. Tom is trained in crisis and emergency risk communication. His interest lies in developing effective messaging for the general public during all phases of disasters.

All right, so Tom Hipper. Welcome to The 10,000 Hours.

Thanks Maurice. Thanks very much for having me.

Yeah, I’m really excited about talking to you about your history and specifically, about your professional focus as it– I think it has particular resonance to the world that we live in today. But why don’t we start here? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what kind of kid you were?

Sure, I’d be happy to do that. So I am a New Yorker at heart. The whole Hipper crew is from one borough or another. So originally from the New York area.

And my parents went to– took a random vacation down to Florida, when I was about two years old, and stumbled across a little town called Melbourne Beach. And they were walking along the beach one morning and basically said to themselves, why the hell do we still live in New York when we could be down here? And so we packed up shop and I spent about a decade down in Florida growing up. And then, the pull to come back with family eventually brought me back up to the New York, New Jersey area. And obviously, in Philadelphia now, and really kind of bounced around the Northeast most of my life.

Did you have any kind of real interest or hobbies or the kinds of things that really pulled you? Were you bookish? Or athletic?

I actually– I’m going to regret telling this story, but long story short, my grandfather– I was always an out– very outgoing kid. My grandfather, who was also down in Florida at the time, got wind of a group called Manhattan Model Search, who was coming to Florida to find the next big thing, as it were. And so he insisted that my parents take my sister and I to this Manhattan Model Search casting event. And I think my dad felt it was the path of least resistance to just go along with this and say, OK, sure, we’ll give it a try.

And so my sister and I went and long story short, I apparently passed the initial test, and was next invited to the Swan Hotel in Orlando a few months later. And they brought a bunch of talent agents down from New York and California. And I, through a series of conversations, I ended up meeting an agent, a talent agent down there.

And before I know it, within a couple of months, I was back up in New York actually going on auditions for commercials and ended up booking a few spots. You may have seen me on really quite terrible quality Pizza Hut commercials, or Captain Crunch commercials.
And needless to say, I think I’m a good athlete. I think I’m certainly a bookworm. I don’t think I’m that great an actor. I think I had the freckles and the curly hair that was good timing when I was in that 11 to 15 range. I was what they were looking for. And then once actual acting ability was required to continue booking work, kind of realized that maybe don’t quit the day job, and maybe this academic thing is probably the area I should stick to.

So that actually– yeah, you didn’t see that one coming, I bet.

I totally didn’t see your career hawking Captain Crunch.

Now you have to– now you have to– you have to adapt that question so that it’s, were you into sports, books, or commercials.

Right, or did you spend time on the international modeling circuit? Wow, Tom, that’s– I’m totally thrown off by that story, by the way. That’s great.

I mean it’s sort of an interesting jump off, because you were a teenager, and it’s that crucial time when a person has to decide what do they want to do professionally, even though you really don’t have a clear understanding of what the professional world is about. And so, how did you make your college decision, and when you made it, what were your intentions?

I came in, I went to the college in New Jersey for my undergraduate work. And they call it open option. That’s effectively– it’s a nice way of saying you have no idea what the hell you want to do with your life. And so you–

Right, Can’t make up my mind. Exactly.

And they allow you to stay in that state of uncertainty for about two years. And I’m pretty sure I eked out as much of that as I possibly could. But toward the end of my second year, I took a class with a professor of the name John Pollock there. And as my peers eventually joked, by the time I graduated, I had, by the end I had effectively majored in Pollock.

He was a communication professor there. And he was very interested in this field of health communication. And so I took a couple of courses with him, a social marketing course, a research methods course. And I think it was a combination of really feeling like, wow, this is an important area, one that I can do some good and make an impact.

But also, I think what was so great about– what made him such a great professor and advisor at that stage for me was that he treated us like colleagues. And we were taking fairly advanced methods courses as undergraduates. And before I knew it, I was presenting at national and international conferences. I was presenting research that I had conducted as an undergrad at these big conferences and networking with leaders in the field and other graduate students who were further down the path already.

And so I think there was this appeal in terms of both the impact that I could eventually had if I stayed on this path, and also just getting excited about feeling like, wow, I almost feel like I’m ahead of the curve here. And I’m putting myself in a good position to hit the ground running if I go to the graduate school route, which is ultimately what I ended up doing.

I think nothing can be more affirming as an undergraduate student than doing your own research and presenting it in front of professionals in the field. Talk a little bit more about the independent research that you did as an undergrad. What were you focused on?

A lot of the primary focus of this research was based on this community-structure approach that my professor had come– this was an approach that he developed where we looked at– normally you look at this notion of how mass media and news coverage of certain issues– in our case, we tended to focus on health issues. You look at how newspapers can frame an issue, and how depending on how that issue is framed for a given audience, that might impact how that audience sees an issue. And obviously, depending on the region of the country, or perhaps the actual country if we’re looking at this on an international scale, the way those issues are framed are often very different, and may, again, impact how the audience sees an issue.

This approach actually kind of flips that and looks at whether the demographics of a specific area might, in turn, impact how newspapers and newspaper coverage of important issues are framed. So kind of flipping that issue on its head and looking at whether or not demographics and beliefs and attitudes in certain areas might be playing a role in how things are being covered in those spaces. And looking at that across a wide range of health and even, in some cases, political issues.

So, so much of the work that you just described seems so prescient, like almost driven for the place that the world is today, that we find ourselves both as a country and maybe even as a globe. I wonder if we can take a step back and maybe talk about health communications, what it is, what it seeks to do, what questions it asks, and where it fits in the public health ecosystem.

Yeah, sure. So in a nutshell, the field is designed to convey information about health, to help people, to encourage people to take steps in their lives to be healthier and protect their health, live healthier lives. So it’s not just the provision of information, that’s a part of it. Right, we want to raise awareness and knowledge and understanding. But we also, ideally, want to shift attitudes and beliefs and social norms, and ultimately, change health behaviors.

Getting people to change their behaviors, no less to protect their health, is a really challenging thing to do. We are– the global we– we are a stubborn– you know, we’re stubborn. We don’t like to– we don’t like to change. And we don’t like to be lectured at.

And you think about some of the tried and true health communication areas, helping people quit smoking, or eat healthier, or exercise more. And you can start to imagine how people who smoke, or people who are having trouble exercising, or eating healthy on a consistent basis, they don’t love to hear from experts on why what they’re doing is unhealthy or how it could be better. They’re not exactly beating down the door to hear from health communication researchers about any of these things.

And so that– so this challenge of making this information compelling, and packaging it in a way that it actually moves the needle a bit and helps people, was what’s exciting to me. It was a kind of an embrace that challenge. And as soon as I realized that this takes baby steps– you’re not going to just magically come up with the perfect message and change people’s behaviors overnight– as soon as I internalized that, it allowed me to get excited about the potential for this space.

So let’s talk about the emergency space. I mean, I have so many questions. So we’re recording this podcast in the middle of a global pandemic, a once in a lifetime global pandemic. And I’m assuming that an expert like you has been sitting back and taking in all of the messages and messaging that has gone out, both locally, by the state level, and at The National level. And so I wonder if you could critique, on both sides of the scale, things that you have heard that seem really efficacious and things that we’ve gotten wrong, and that hopefully we learn from moving forward.

Sure, so how long do we have for this podcast? Is it eight hours?

Yeah, yeah.

It’s the extended edition, right? Yeah, so fortunately the– you’re right, I have been, for better or worse, I’ve been paying very close attention to how we have been communicating around the pandemic. And unfortunately, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear, far more in the way of critiquing to do here than– not to say there aren’t some positives, and we can certainly touch on those today too.
But it is very frustrating to not just– I think it’s been a frustrating experience, just as a citizen, a human being going through this process. But certainly as a risk communication person, knowing the playbook that exists, seeing those rules not just broken at times, but just completely smashed, it has been really, really difficult. I think from a risk communication standpoint, there’s a couple of things that really jump out to me as problematic.

The first happened almost immediately. There were signs to me that we were on the wrong path very early. And I recall January, very early January of 2020, I was at the gym. And I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Fauci talking about these concerning cases in China. And we– there was concern that maybe we were on the cusp of something here, but didn’t know all that much just yet. But already the alarm bells for me are going off. And I say that only to say that, so that’s early January.

So if you’re tuned in and listening, you’re starting to pay close attention to what might be coming about. And then you actually reflect on how we– and primarily, when I say we, I’m thinking the federal government at this point, is actually communicating about the issue. And right out of the gate, we got this wrong. And not to– I realize this isn’t a political show. And it’s– I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but you can’t have this conversation without talking about the abject failure of the Trump administration and their communication efforts around this, breaking almost every rule in that playbook I mentioned earlier.

And the first thing that they did was the trap that we often fall into, is just downplaying the threat. And it’s– if you take a step back, it’s not always a nefarious goal. When it’s your job to communicate to people in scary times, when people are dying and people are really afraid, human nature is to make them feel better, and make them feel less scared. And Trump would say things like, well I just wanted to be a cheerleader. And there is something understandable about that.

And it’s why leaders need to be trained in crisis communication, because it is our innate tendency to want to make people feel better and reassure them. When in fact, our job is to level with them and trust them with bad news, and then empower them to do something about it, and not withhold information. Because if we don’t, they will panic. Panic is an overblown concept that should never drive our response. It should never be the reason we withhold information. And we did that.

If you look at the amount of time that we wasted in January and all of February and part of March downplaying this. And so what we lost in that window was precious time to accurately inform the public, and to start to brace them for what was to come. And that could have set such a different tone for this whole response. We could have used that time to gradually help people understand the potential threat, even if we didn’t have all the answers. And we didn’t, and that’s OK. That’s not a requirement for being able to communicate effectively. You never have all the details.

But we could have been preparing people for the impact this could have on their lives, and what they could have been doing to start preparing for major changes, major non-pharmaceutical interventions like school closures or remote work. Instead, we downplayed, downplayed, downplayed, and then hit people with, effectively, a nationwide lockdown.

The other thing that we completely botched from the outset, if you take it– if you go to CDC and you get their training that they offer in crisis and emergency risk communication, the first thing they will tell you is, if you want to blow up your communication efforts and utterly ruin your response right out of the gate, the best thing you can do is to create mixed messages from sources who are supposed to be on the same team. Because what that does is, it makes it very difficult for the broad public to know who to trust. And then they start to question that. And then they start to go elsewhere for their information.

And I give you– I mean, if COVID-19 is not exhibit A for that. If you look at what leadership and, say, CDC was trying to do. Go back to Dr. Messonnier’s press conference in February, where she tried to go by this playbook. She started to level with us and say that she was concerned. And she started to have conversations with her family about what this could mean, and how this could impact them.
And then what happened? The administration effectively started to muzzle CDC from that point on, contradicted that point, and spent months and months and months telling us it was going to go away. And so right out of the gate, you have those diametrically opposed messages coming from the people who were supposed to be telling us consistent information.

And that, unfortunately, just set up this tone for polarization and politicizing these issues. I mean, if– I never in a million years would have thought that masks, such a simple behavior, could become such a polarizing topic. And that the seeds for that were planted very early on in this response. And it’s– even though the administration changed, and that has helped in a lot of ways, the damage has been done.
And I think one of the takeaways that I have learned about this field in general, is that trust and credibility is our lifeline. It is the only thing that, at the end of the day, that really matters. If people don’t trust you and see you as a credible source of information, it really doesn’t matter what you say. It’s not going to do anything. And it’s easy– trust is easy to lose, and it’s hard to gain.

And I– not to paint to pessimistic a picture, but to be completely honest, obviously still focused on getting through this pandemic, which isn’t over, but the risk communication person and the worries about the long term effects of the lack of credibility and the mistrust that has come about because of these mistakes, and how long it’s going to take us as a discipline, as a public health in general, to earn that trust back.

I wanted to sort of turn our attention away from our current crisis, and think about the next big thing that humanity will have to face. I mean, the one thing that we know is true is that something else big will challenge us, once we’re out of this one. And I’m wondering, so based on all the lessons that we’ve learned, and if you were crisis communications czar when the next thing happens, what are your first three big moves?

Well, I can tell you without question that the first thing that needs to stop is the defunding of public health. If you look at public health budgets, the past decade, OK? And a reminder, this is in a world where thanks in part to climate change, we are experiencing disaster level events with more frequency, and those events are more powerful. So even in that climate, you look at– take a look at public health department budgets the past decade, and you will see, year after year, budget cuts.

I can tell you– so, I’m the associate director at the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication, here at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel. And we developed, years ago, we developed this hazard vulnerability analysis tool, which is a really jargony way of saying it was a quantitative, largely quantitative tool designed to help health departments assess their communities risk for bad things happening, and help them prioritize which bad things should we be planning for. And we looked at all kinds of stuff, the likelihood that a bad, specific disaster scenario could happen in a place like Philadelphia. If it were to happen, even if it wasn’t that likely, how bad would it be, and used this tool to effectively create a rank list of these are the things that we should be prioritizing.

And I’ll give you a guess. What do you think number one was. What do you think the number one hazard was on that [INAUDIBLE] scale was.

For southeastern Pennsylvania?

Southeastern Pennsylvania, Philly, the state of Pennsylvania as a whole. What do you– what do you think was the number one?

Oh please, that’s easy. That’s a second Eagles Super Bowl win. No, I’m going to guess a global health pandemic.

Bingo. An infectious disease outbreak. And so not to get derailed here, but that’s why those early talking points of like no one could have imagined this, no one could have seen this coming, it was enough to like– I’m surprised I have hair left. It was just absolutely infuriating. But the point is public health knew this. Everyone working in this space knew that this is the kind of event that we’ve been planning for.
And I’ll be honest with you. The kinds of– one of the ways that we prepare in this field for bad things is we actually exercise for them. We create these hypothetical scenarios and get together and test out our various capabilities, and how we would respond to if it actually happened. That’s how, broadly, the field of public health preparedness or emergency management prepares for things like this.

And I’ll be perfectly frank with you that when we plan for a pandemic, the scenario itself is often far worse than COVID. It’s either more transmissible, more virulent, what have you. The virus itself that we’ve utilized in some of these hypothetical situations is worse than this one. And so you sort of think about that for a second, and you reflect on the past year, and you go oh my God. What, well, that’s not good.

And so the point here is that we have, just as before, just as before with that playbook that I mentioned, we have a lot of expertise around– an understanding around what could happen and what needs to be done. And so the thing that has to happen is we have to stop reacting to these things that we know are coming, that we know are a matter of not if but when. And we have to get back to what public health is all about, prevention.

Public health– I joke that my family loves– they absolutely love me. They’re proud of me. But it’s adorable hearing them attempt to describe what I do in public health preparedness to other people. It’s hilarious. I mean, it’s really– it’s cute, but my God, it is a terrible description of what I do.

And the point there, is people don’t– they don’t see what public health brings to the table to protect us from so many threats, not the least of which would be a global pandemic. And so part of what we need to be so much better about is selling that vitally important role, so that ultimately the funding is there, and ultimately, when the bad thing does happen, and hopefully we are more prepared for it, people are more likely to look to us as trusted experts in this, to guide them through it.

So that is a major, major gap. We have to break this cycle, because this won’t be the last one. It absolutely will not be. And every time something like this happens, whether it’s a horrible storm– doesn’t have to be a disease outbreak for it to have major health implications. And so public health is always going to need to play a vital role in these kinds of responses. And it’s got to be up to the task.
And I can only hope that going through this awful year together will ultimately lead to– it will lead us to understand we’ve got to better fund this work so we are more prepared. And we’ve got to get back to the things we know that work. We’ve got to get on the same page with how to talk about these issues, how to guide people through these kinds of situations. Or we see what happens. And we see how much worse it makes an already bad situation.

Tom, I feel like this conversation has been both profound and an education in what we need to do to be ready for the next. Thank you for being on The 10,000 Hours.

Thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast is hosted by me, Maurice Baynard. Our producers are Shaun Fitzpatrick and Nathan Barrick. Drexel’s 10,000 Hours podcast is powered by Drexel University.