Shaping COVID Response with The Rockefeller Foundation


When the COVID-19 pandemic began, suddenly there was an urgent need to communicate complex and rapidly changing public health information to everyone in America.

The Rockefeller Foundation was a pioneer in the nation’s pandemic response, identifying early on that strategic communications support for public health leaders would be critical to stem the disease. The Rockefeller Foundation stepped in to assist public health leaders with a broad set of strategic communications activities—and brought in Hattaway Communications to serve as the secretariat to oversee the work and ensure it was based in research, insight, and understanding of the nuances of communities and populations at highest risk.


The Rockefeller Foundation partnered with Hattaway Communications (Hattaway) for help in understanding how critical audiences, such as first responders, teachers, and parents—as well as the public at large—felt about public health recommendations, and to develop messaging to effectively reach them.

In September 2020, Hattaway launched the first wave of an ongoing tracking study asking Americans about their attitudes toward and actions during the pandemic. We fielded five subsequent survey waves at pivotal moments, asking about issues like mask mandates, testing, school reopening, vaccine awareness and uptake, and use of incentives to promote public health behaviors. Our nationally representative findings were the basis for robust messaging guidance to help local, state, and national public health officials communicate effectively as the public’s understanding and needs changed. The rigorous methodology behind our work helped public health leaders see firsthand how critical it was to tailor their messaging to the most urgent needs in their communities, and our work was widely used by government, foundations, nonprofits, and local community groups in their pandemic response.

Results of our last survey, released in March2022, provided a retrospective analysis of trends throughout the pandemic, sharing groundbreaking new data about how people’s beliefs and actions evolved, and offering robust guidance on how public health communication can adapt in light of those realities.

Alongside the research insights and messaging guidance, The Rockefeller Foundation also knew that real-time community support and peer-to-peer learning would quicken the pace of pandemic response. InJanuary 2021, The Rockefeller Foundation launched a Communications Community of Practice to give public health communicators a dedicated space to hear the latest insights as well as share best practices and research-based work from their peers. Hattaway organized and managed the Community, hosting webinars every two weeks featuring diverse communications leaders and practitioners who were actively responding to new developments in the pandemic.


Over the course of 27 webinars, the Community grew to reach nearly 1,200public health communicators representing more than 300 organizations. TheCommunity’s popularity led to its incorporation into The RockefellerFoundation’s long-term domestic pandemic response plan, which is now managed byBrown University. The Community now benefits from strategic connection to the university’s ongoing work investigating the intersection of technology, communications theory, and mass and social media.

Insights from Hattaway’s ongoing surveys also informed The Rockefeller Foundation’s ability to anticipate new pandemic-related issues across the country. For example, the data allowed us to anticipate “pandemic fatigue,” which would affect behavioral changes between the delta (summer 2021) and omicron (winter 2021–22) waves. Working with Hattaway, The Rockefeller Foundation provided simple, flexible frameworks for public health communicators to use to address breaking news consistently, clearly, and effectively. Again and again, data proved what we knew anecdotally: It is critical to engage and uplift community-driven work and organizations, because Americans’ faith in their local leaders and communities is powerful and persistent.

Importantly, as the country continues to navigate COVID-19 and prepare for new pandemics, our research has helped shift national understanding of who Americans are and how communicators can most effectively speak to them. For example, mainstream media continues to pit the vaccinated against the unvaccinated—while the reality, clear from our research and from the work of public health leaders on the ground, is far more nuanced. We have been proud to work with The Rockefeller Foundation and the public health community in the fight against the pandemic and to keep individuals and families informed and safe through tested, trusted messaging and outreach work.

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