How to Successfully Navigate COVID-19 Vaccine Communications

January 5, 2021By Tressa RobbinsBurrelles, Communications, Crisis Communications, General Information, Industry Events, Media Measurement, Media Monitoring, Mobile Media, News Coverage, Public Relations, Social Media, Technology 1 Comment

image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) recently published A Communicator’s Guide to COVID-19 Vaccines.” For this 44-page guide, they reviewed more than 100 research studies to develop the guide, which outlines the research, theories, and models along with 17 recommended-driven findings for companies and organizations to use when communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine.

There’s far too much information in this guide to unpack in a single blog post, so I’ll focus on the “quick tips for integrating information sources and opinion leaders, learning from theories and models, and communicating about the vaccine, including messaging.”

IPR President and CEO, Dr. Tina McCorkindale, APR, presented the findings during a recent webinar, which I highly recommend. She walks us through the research and their findings, step-by-step, making it easy to understand. Here, I’ll break it down further into digestible nuggets.

Summary of the 17 Key Findings

  1. Vaccine hesitancy (reluctance or refusal) isn’t about a lack of information. Pushing out more information isn’t going to solve anything. Studies showed other measures need to be employed to increase uptake. We shouldn’t confuse anti-vaxxers with those who have hesitancy.
  2. Tailoring communication is critical—it’s not ‘one size fits all’. Pre-testing messages, using language that reflects we’re in this together, evaluating throughout to see what’s effective (and what’s not). Tina explained, “vaccine communication is critical because your employees are depending on you to be a trust information source.”
  3. Agencies must be aligned. The federal government, federal agencies (CDC, FDA, etc.), employers, and healthcare community must be consistent to increasing public trust and confidence. “Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you’re on, the government released misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it was downplaying the severity of the disease, whether you should wear masks, the level of testing capacity…” As an example, Tina referred to Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” When agencies are not aligned, it diminishes public trust and increases the spread of misinformation.
  4. Transparency is key. The research shows that you can’t sugarcoat the risk of taking the vaccine”. In fact, Tina explained, when you give people information about the potential adverse effects, it makes them trust more—and it’s just the responsible thing to do.
  5. Marginalized groups have lower vaccine confidence. A recent Pew Research report found that 42% of Black Americans are the least likely group to say they would or probably would get a vaccine. The other 58% say they aren’t sure or probably won’t get the vaccine. These numbers are especially significant as underrepresented groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
  6. Doctors and nurses are the most trusted source for giving information about the vaccine. They have the resources, knowledge and tools. It’s essential that they can communicate this with their patients and communities effectively. Research showed that when healthcare providers encourage people to get vaccinated, we are 10 times more likely to get vaccinated.
  7. Define opinion leaders for target audiences. Tina called this the concept of ‘social contagion’ where people tend to think and act like their friends and family. Yes, mass media certainly generates awareness and knowledge but friends and family (your community) hold the highest level of trust that affects adoption. Peer pressure works!
    *Side note, if you want to see a photo of Elvis Presley getting the polio vaccine in 1956 on the Ed Sullivan Show to dispel misinformation and encourage teenagers to take it, check out this brief CNN news video That one shot resulted in significant vaccine uptake among young adults and teens.
  8. Do not ignore the anti-vaccination movement. You aren’t going to change their minds, but Tina explained that because they can be very influential, it impacts the undecided people.
  9. Tell stories, not statistics. By now, most communicators know storytelling is much more effective than raw data. In this case, it’s even more crucial. First-person testimonials of those positively affected by vaccinations are much more influential.
  10. Help encourage health literacy—the degree to which individuals can obtain, process and understand basic health information. According to the Health Resource and Services Administration, “low health literacy is more prevalent among older adults, minority populations, those with low socioeconomic status, and medically underserved people.”
  11. Use theories and models to guide communication planning as well as strategies and tactics, which is the main component of this IPR guide. Tina explains the Theory of Planned Behavior and other behavioral and psychological theories and models during the webinar. Personally, I found this part fascinating!
  12. Understand biases, as they can lead to vaccine hesitancy. Tina explained there are some 50 cognitive biases in the guide, but in the webinar, she focused on these three:
    • Optimism Bias – thinking you’re not likely to get COVID-19.
    • Confirmation Bias – having strong opinions about the vaccine and only seek opinions that support them.
    • Omission Bias (aka status quo) – more concerned with the vaccine risks that the disease
  1. Misinformation should not be repeated. Note that misinformation is inaccurate or confusing information, while disinformation is deliberately misleading or flat-out false. Most PR pros know this, as does anyone who’s ever had media training. Even if you’re disputing and trying to correct the information, by repeating it, people can remember the misinformation, despite your good intentions.
  2. Inoculate people against misinformation. You could inadvertently expose some of the fallacy and arguments prior to them hearing about it. Instead, Tina advises that we educate people about what kinds of misinformation to watch out for—without specifics. And ensure they are aware of the trusted sources of information.
  3. Language matters. Words matter. Avoid using loaded terms that can turn people off. Some of these include “conspiracy theories” or “anti-vaxxers.” “Public health agencies” is better than “federal” or “government” to not elicit a feeling of red tape. Another one is “Operation Warp Speed” which insinuates a rushed vaccine process and therefore can impact people’s perception of its efficacy and potential safety.
  4. Listen to people’s concerns about the vaccine, “don’t brush them off as conspiracy theories. Really hear what they’re trying to say,” she advised. Listening to rumors (especially consistent ones) can help you identify and address deeper issues.
  5. Technology can help. Research showed that digital push technologies like text messaging have been effective at increasing the uptake of vaccines. Gamification is another example that can be effective for changing attitudes and behavior. Digital technology also helps you track and measure your communication efforts, which is a must.

During the last point in the webinar, Tina’s dog decided to weigh-in and, to this ‘dog mom’, sounded agreeable. 🙂

The “Communicator’s Guide to COVID-19 Vaccination” is excellent, although I found the webinar easier to comprehend as it was peppered with stories and examples. So again, I highly recommend watching.

Finally, the IPR team put together a fantastic COVID-19 vaccine communication resource center with the guide as well as numerous other helpful resources.

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