Communicating the vaccine: how do we get the story right?

What are the communications challenges around persuading the public to be vaccinated against COVID-19? This week, our friends at Tortoise Media held its first morning ThinkIn of 2021, exploring this timely topic.

To consider how the Government can drive vaccine uptake among the UK population, our Chief Executive Claire Eldridge joined a panel of experts including Sarah Davies, the founder of The Behavioral Architects, and Alex Hesz, Global Chief Strategy Officer at DDB. We also heard from James Sorene, who is leading the Government’s COVID-19 vaccine communications, on the steps being taken by those in charge, and there were important contributions from Tortoise’s James Harding and Matthew d’Ancona.

You can watch the full recording here or read on for a short summary of the context and themes covered by the panel. 

Where are we now? This week, the Government committed to vaccinating all over-70s, the most clinically vulnerable, and front-line health and care workers by mid-February, to allow lockdown restrictions to be eased. That requires roughly 13 million people to be given a chance to be vaccinated over the next six weeks. Since the vaccine roll-out programme began in mid-December last year, only one million have been vaccinated (at the time of writing). 

How significant are the barriers? According to a recent poll conducted by the University of Oxford, while a substantial majority (72%) are in favour of a COVID-19 vaccine, 16% of the population are very unsure about receiving one, 12% are likely to delay or avoid getting one, and one in 20 are firmly anti-vaccination. Further, some demographics are more hesitant than others: 39% of black and minority ethnic Londoners say they are likely to take the vaccine compared with 70% of white people in the capital, while only half of Londoners aged 18-49 say they are likely to have it. These statistics all have concerning implications. 

So what should the Government do? The panel’s discussion covered a huge amount of ground in the hour, and the key themes to emerge were:

  1. Decentralise its approach: Given current mistrust and misunderstanding among the public, it’s crucial to understand communities’ needs and concerns, and work with the most trusted messengers to engage them, rather than maintain a centralised approach. Life beyond the Westminster bubble, up and down the country is very different – don’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.
  2. Make every effort to engage hard-to-reach communities: The least engaged are often the most at-risk, so every effort must be made to reach, listen to and involve these groups. There have been successful programmes to learn from, such as Ebola, which have shown the importance of respecting culture and diversity, and highlighted the need to localise messaging and content.
  3. Highlight the need for collective action: The vaccine can only be effective if sufficient people take it. Framing the vaccine effort as a question of citizenship – ‘a vaccine protects other people’s lives, as well as your own’ – rather than one of purely personal choice, is vital.
  4. Win the emotional argument: To drive vaccine uptake, the Government can’t convince the public using data and statistics alone – it needs to appeal to public sentiment to help people understand that having a COVID-19 vaccine is ‘normal’, ‘easy’, and the ‘right thing to do’, benefitting society as well as individuals.
  5. Keep the messaging simple (but provide detail for those who want it): There was friendly debate around the public’s preference for simple versus complex information, but also an acknowledgement that the public has been willing to engage with novel and complicated scientific information throughout the pandemic. Making detail available that substantiates the communications is important for those that want it.

Closing thought: In framing the discussion, Tortoise wrote: ‘throughout the pandemic, confusion and speculation about the efficacy and safety of the various vaccines has thrived in the gap where clear, consistent communications were absent.’ If the Government is placing its faith in a widespread COVID-19 vaccination programme as the UK’s route out of the pandemic, the need for clear, consistent communications to replace confusion and speculation around the efficacy and safety of vaccines has never been clearer. 

Let’s hope the Government can fill that gap – and quickly.

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