Last week, faced with the worst global pandemic in over a century, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams asked for help from Kylie Jenner. Let me say that again: The head of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and principal advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services made a public appeal for a 22-year-old celebrity cosmetics mogul to help lead the fight against COVID-19.
It was an excellent strategy, as Kylie Jenner could well be our best hope to save civilization.
These are strange, surreal, and scary times, and most of us are looking to government officials and public health experts for comfort and guidance. And, yet, billions – with a ‘b’ – of people around the world have tuned out those experts and officials. Many of them discount or dismiss information because it comes from official sources, and this trust deficit is growing increasingly large all around the globe.
In fairness, even the experts have more questions than answers about COVID-19. But there is one central fact that has garnered broad consensus: The best way to slow its spread is for all of us to practice physical distancing and, for some, to self-isolate. This simple message has been constantly and consistently repeated, but, alas, there are still people who stubbornly insist on gathering in large groups.
To be clear, the problem is not that these people haven’t heard the message – or that they have come to a different scientific conclusion based on a reasoned and logical assessment of the known facts. They’ve heard it, and either don’t believe it or don’t believe it applies to them. Yet another strongly worded plea from the Surgeon General would mean nothing, that’s why Dr. Adams called on Kylie Jenner.
Kylie Jenner is not a doctor nor a research scientist, but she has something that greatest medical minds on the planet don’t – a devoted community of 167 million Instagram followers who care about what she says. And, when Surgeon General Adams asked for her help, Kylie answered the call. Jenner soon posted a video asking her followers to follow the Surgeon General’s advice to stay home, stay safe.
As Kylie correctly pointed out, her millions of millennial and Gen Z followers aren’t immune to the virus and could infect those more vulnerable including their parents and grandparents. She didn’t say anything that the Surgeon General and health experts hadn’t said many times over, the message was just coming from someone – yes, using a sparkle filter – whose example and advice they’ve chosen to follow.
If even a fraction of Kylie’s followers do what she asked it will save lives (113,100 of them retweeted or liked an earlier coronavirus tweet). Leaders and officials around the world are now following Dr. Adams’ example, enlisting influencers to help spread their message. Consequently, any list of the tech being used to fight COVID-19 must therefore include social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the importance of another, much older, communications technology: Television. You see, as far as I can tell, the Surgeon General didn’t have his people call Kylie Jenner’s people. Federal agents didn’t show up at her door and hand her a dossier. No, Adams made his public plea to her during an interview on the ABC network mainstay Good Morning America.
The ability to convey accurate information has never been more important. Other celebrities, such as Tom Hanks and Idris Elba have shared their own stories – but Kylie’s example offers us insights into the erosion of trust in established institutions; the residual power of traditional media; and the evolution of influencers as a potential channel to help us restore our trust in expertise – if not in experts.
The key takeaway for every branch of government and even corporate brands is in these uncontrollable times they will need to identify unconventional voices to help communicate their messages.
Photo Credit: Kylie Cosmetics