Survey About 2021 Affirms the COVID-19 Pandemic Will Remain the Dominant Topic in American Life, but Many Are Hopeful

The COVID-19 pandemic will remain the dominant topic for Americans in nearly every aspect of their lives in 2021, according to a survey in the USC Center for Public Relations’ annual Relevance Report. When asked about news they will consume, 44% of Americans say the COVID-19 vaccine will be the topic they are most interested in hearing and reading about within the next year. However, despite the challenges faced in 2020, Americans remain hopeful about the future, with 37% choosing “fingers crossed” as the emoji that best expresses their feelings about the new year — more than twice the number of respondents who said they were worried.

The survey is featured in the 2021 Relevance Report, a curated collection of short essays from public relations industry leaders, USC academics and students that predict trends that will affect the communication profession. From the COVID-19 pandemic to social justice issues, Americans are experiencing a watershed moment in history that will continue to shape their everyday lives next year. This year’s report analyzes how communicators can address these topics in their internal programs, external campaigns and other outreach efforts.

“In a normal year, many different topics are relevant to Americans,” said Fred Cook, director of the USC Center for PR. “But in 2021, they will be paying closest attention to COVID-19, and it will continue to impact their lives. Information on the virus is what they will listen to, share with others and act upon.”

The survey findings included in the Relevance Report are based on a nationwide online poll conducted by the center, in partnership with public relations firm Golin and the Institute for Public Relations. Highlights of the survey’s findings include:

  • Americans will trust doctors the most (18%) to provide accurate, credible information, followed by journalists (10.5%) and educators (7.7%) — significantly more than politicians.
  • Respondents chose virtual doctor visits (14.5%) as the number one activity they began during the quarantine and plan to continue in the future, ahead of services like home grocery delivery (13.2%) and meal delivery (9.3%).
  • The primary behavioral change Americans hope to make in 2021 is to improve their health and fitness (45.7%), which ranked higher than spending more time with their families (37.1%) and social distancing (22.6%).
  • Food and dining are front-of-mind issues for many Americans, who state they’re very interested in information on food and recipes and look forward to dining in restaurants (20.8%) more than going to concerts (11.9%), movies (10.8%) or the beach (9%).
  • COVID-19 also influences fashion choices: When asked what slogan they would most likely wear on a T-shirt next year, respondents’ most popular choice was “Wear A Mask” (21%) — ahead of “Make America Great Again” (15%) and “Black Lives Matter” (14.5%).
  • In a future crisis, Americans are most likely to trust public health officials (18.4%) or their governors (17.7%), far ahead of other elected representatives or first responders. Notably, 25% of respondents chose to answer, “None of the above.”
  • Americans remain hopeful about the future, with 37% choosing “fingers crossed” as the emoji that best expresses their feelings about the new year, more than double those who said they are worried (15.7%).

“Americans are remarkably resilient,” Cook said. “After one of the most dismal, divisive years in recent memory, we have every reason to be pessimistic about where things are headed, but somehow we are renewed by our shared optimism.”

The center analyzed responses from 1,087 people representing a cross-section of the U.S. Census; additional results are included in the 2021 Relevance Report.

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