SMANA Urges Biden’s COVID Advisory Board to Include Behavioral Scientist and Social Marketer

The Biden-Harris administration has created a COVID-19 Advisory Board, a team of leading public health experts who will advise President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. This is an excellent first step for the new administration. However, the past nine months have shown us what a huge role an individual’s behavior plays in both helping to spread – and to curb – the virus. With vaccines serving as a critical next step in the country’s response to COVID-19, a behavior change approach will be vital in addressing barriers and increasing vaccination uptake.

SMANA is a professional association, whose members work with all levels of government on initiatives to change individuals’ behavior for the social good. We think it is so important that the advisory board also include behavior change professionals, specifically both a behavioral scientist and a strategic social marketing expert.

On December 14, SMANA President Emily Patterson shared a letter with the COVID-19 Advisory Board Co-Chairs – Dr. David Kessler, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, and Dr. Vivek Murthy – to stress the key role that behavior change must play in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and encourage the Advisory Board to add these two additional members to supply expertise in this area.

The letter included the following points for the board’s consideration:

  • During the past nine months, we have witnessed the dire outcomes of risky human behaviors related to the Coronavirus. These behaviors have contributed to the overwhelming morbidity and mortality rates of COVID-19 in this country.

The current COVID-19 Advisory Board members have expertise in medical science, global health, and infectious disease. However, influencing human behaviors are key to controlling the spread of the pandemic. To this end, we recommend two additional positions with complementary skill sets be added to the board:

  • A Behavioral Scientist would offer insights and proven practices related to influencing citizens to adopt key protective behaviors. As many of you probably recall, in 2015 President Obama issued an Executive Order directing Federal agencies to apply behavioral science insights to the design of Federal policies and programs.
  • An experienced Strategic Social Marketer would recommend COVID-19 behavior change strategies that would be the most likely to influence protective behaviors for each priority population.

We believe these two positions are necessary because:

  • A Behavioral Scientist on the new task force can draw on principles of social psychology and the burgeoning evidence base of behavioral economics to advise state and federal bodies on how best to frame policies and create new norms around major preventative behaviors for each priority audience. As people do not always act or make decisions in their best interest due to non-conscious biases, habits and other factors, traditional health promotion approaches that stress rational benefits may have only limited effectiveness in some population segments. These insights will reveal:
    1. Individual as well as cultural barriers to key protective behaviors
    2. Desired benefits for adopting key protective behaviors
    3. Motivators that would make it more likely key protective behaviors would be adopted
    4. Who the most influential messengers for this population would be
  • The Strategic Social Marketing expert would then, based on audience insights and prior and current COVID-related activities around the world, design COVID-19 behavior change strategies that would be the most likely to influence protective behaviors for each priority population. Social marketing is a proven discipline for contributing positive outcomes for similar public health challenges including ones related to HIV/AIDS, Ebola, childhood immunizations, tobacco cessation, drinking and driving, and physical activity.

Help SMANA make the case for adding two behavior change positions to the COVID-19 Advisory. Please Tweet or email the advisory board members with your thoughts. Feel free to borrow from SMANA’s letter and social media posts.

The current three board members can be reached at:

David Kessler:
Twitter: @DavidAKesslerMD

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith
Twitter: @DrNunezSmith

Dr. Vivek Murthy
Twitter: @vivek_murthy


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