After an unprecedented year of tragedy due to COVID-19, there is finally a medical intervention that has the potential to stem the tide. Of course we’re talking about the arrival of vaccines. But how can government officials, public health experts and the team of communications professionals supporting them overcome the barriers to vaccine acceptance that might prevent the overall success of this vaccination program?
The success of the vaccination program, of course, rests on achieving high rates of uptake, especially in states with higher case counts. As the supply of available COVID-19 vaccines increase and improvements are made to their accessibility, we will presumably see an uptick in vaccination rates. And as these rates improve, there is a strong possibility that the story will begin to tell itself. The implication is that if we have effective vaccines, then we will see that the people that have been hospitalized with COVID and dying from COVID are universally going to be the ones that didn’t get a vaccine. This will become the story.
The challenge now is convincing the vast majority of citizens, many of whom are are skeptical of the vaccine for a host of reasons, to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity as quickly as possible. This challenge reflects the need for useful insight into public perceptions, and unbiased and credible communication efforts that reflect these insights.
And while addressing and ultimately reducing vaccine hesitancy may prove exceptionally difficult for many reasons, mitigating it is possible with a thoughtfully planned and executed vaccine marketing strategy.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy requires human understanding.
The best approach to solving any problem that involves the behavior and psyche of human beings is to take a human-centered approach. With the right approach and the right set of tools, we can achieve the level of insight required to design a strategy to attack the problem.
Combatting vaccine hesitancy will require a multi-layered marketing and communications strategy delivered in a meaningful and relatable manner. But we can’t assume communications will fix the problem without first understanding the problem.
One of the first priorities and a critical element of crafting and delivering a relatable message is listening to and truly hearing the needs and concerns of Americans. With this foundation in place, we might better understand the critical facilitators and barriers to reaching them with a message that will resonate and ultimately spur action. We aren’t so bold as to assert that we know the solution to this massive problem, but we do feel comfortable enough to share our thoughts related to an approach that might get us a little bit closer to the answers.
Below are some additional considerations that can positively impact the way the narrative is shaped, shared and consumed. These approaches should be considered by those responsible for positioning, messaging, and executing a successful widespread vaccination effort now and in the coming weeks and months ahead.
Clarify the COVID-19 Vaccine safety testing
The scientific and healthcare communities need to be clear with the public that while thedevelopment of these vaccines happened with great speed, it has not happened unsafely. The argument needs to be made that safety and scientific integrity were not compromised by the pace of vaccine development and emergency use authorization. There is a perception among some that entire steps were skipped in the safety testing of these vaccines. The message should be clear that despite collapsing the traditional clinical trial phases, researchers still conducted each phase required to assess efficacy and safety. It’s important to ensure the public that researchers did not cut corners.
Be honest & transparent about vaccine efficacy
While honesty and transparency are closely related, they’re not quite the same thing. Transparency is a function of sharing the what, where, who, how, and why behind the solution you are proposing. Honesty is a function of acting with integrity and being truthful in educating the public and carrying out the solution.
Make an honest and transparent case for why vaccines will improve safety and reduce health risks for society. Over time, researchers will gather more data, and if they do things right, they will be very transparent about what they are learning. Once the data has been captured, the challenge will be effectively communicating what they are learning to the general public through various channels. However, one related barrier is that there is declining consumer confidence in news outlets due to perceptions of bias and even questionable motives due to their close financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Healthcare professionals must speak clearly to the public about these issues. It will be necessary to stress that safety has been the priority from the beginning. There is always the possibility of some long-term, very rare event, but that is true for any vaccine. They have to be honest with people that they don’t know all of the answers about long-term risks but that post-marketing surveillance measures are in place to identify and address any complications.
Be relevant and relatable in your vaccine messaging efforts
Marketers, especially in healthcare, know very well the importance of speaking your audience’s language. Patients, and consumers more generally, need to be communicated with in terms that they understand and can relate to. The average citizen doesn’t understand or appreciate the significance of clinical trial data, but they do understand and relate to the human experience behind those numbers.
Those delivering the message also need to be prepared to target assorted constituencies in unique ways. Populations in various age groups or disparate parts of the country, for example, will be motivated by different things. Some will be motivated by protecting their family, friends & community. Some will see it as a matter of civic responsibility. Still others might be more focused on their own health and well-being. What are their values? What are their ethical considerations? What are the things that motivate them?
Younger demographics, for example, might be most motivated to plug back into their social lives, concerned about missing out on the things they want to do with their lives. Older generations might just be looking for peace of mind or to ease some of the psychological burdens of being considered “at-risk.”
The general feeling with flu and other vaccines is that you can’t change the minds of those that fall into the anti-vaccination camp. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to change the minds of those fringe groups, but we can change the landscape of receptivity of the relatively large number of people that remain on the fence about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. There are many people in the middle who would typically take vaccines, but they have some hesitancy for the reasons we’ve mentioned, and they’d rather wait and see.
A story needs to be told that is relevant to their lives and that aligns with their core values. Without relevance, it will be very difficult to connect with them, and ultimately, convince them to carry out the necessary action steps you are hoping to trigger.
Also, if the story has too many gaps or is disjointed in its delivery, there is a greater opportunity for anxiety to creep in, for doubters to speak out, or worse, for misinformation to fill those gaps. To the degree that measures can be taken to prevent them from being susceptible to negative thinking or misinformation, then that will be beneficial to the effort as well.
Assemble an army of trusted messengers to deliver the message about vaccine safety and efficacy
People will have reasonable questions, but the person providing answers to those questions makes a difference. The effort to reduce hesitancy will almost certainly require trusted voices like physicians and healthcare professionals to deliver the message. But many are convinced that it will take more than just doctors and other healthcare professionals to be active participants in addressing the vaccine hesitancy issue.
A coherent story is certainly necessary, but an effective and persuasive story will also require many connected yet distinct voices that are all sharing the narrative consistently and in unison. The one voice model, relying on individual experts like Dr. Fauci, will not be enough. Influential community leaders certainly carry weight and would be considered trusted messengers, but they too need to be provided the education and tools to pass along the message to their communities.
Promote a sense of urgency around getting vaccinated
Experts tell us, and it stands to reason, that if the vaccination rate doesn’t increase, then the vaccine’s efficacy will be diminished. There is real urgency to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, so this message needs to be shared. This urgency has only been exacerbated by the arrival of new variants of the disease that we now see taking hold in this country. The reason being that the longer these variants are out there, the more chance they have to mutate and create new and more deadly variants.
Another development we’ve seen in recent weeks is a shortage of the necessary supply of vaccines to meet the increasing demand. It remains to be seen whether pushing the threat of new variants and vaccine supply scarcity will increase urgency among people to get their vaccination sooner rather than later.
Highlight vaccinations as an opportunity to “do your part”
Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is a shared responsibility. Most individuals understand that some trade-offs are necessary to ensure our own safety and the safety of the collective. We must all assume that we can be infected by every person we encounter in every home or business or public space we enter. As such, the onus is on all of us to do our part to save lives. This message has been loud and clear as it relates to mitigating factors like hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing. A similar message should be integrated into the marketing narrative around the need for individuals to get vaccinated. Without a vaccine or viable therapeutic solution, our behavior is all we have to stem the number of the dead. This is a difficult psychological burden for each of us to carry, and the longer this threat continues, the more this burden will wear on the American people.
You can’t predict or control what will happen, but you can control your response to it – you can still be your best self even when the world isn’t what you want it to be. In this climate of great uncertainty, getting the COVID-19 vaccines is a concrete way for individuals to protect themselves against the risk of severe illness and simultaneously do their part to ease the burden felt by the collective.
Where do we go from here?
Research on the impact of communication during a time of crisis suggests that the most critical factor in influencing behavior is that communications are provided from a credible source and are empathic in nature. Government and public health officials will need to focus on building trust and confidence and making the investment required to provide the public with some reassurance about these vaccines’ safety and efficacy. This is more about getting buy-in than selling the benefits.
Diving deeper with various community groups to better understand their core psychosocial needs and challenges can reveal ways to gain their trust. It will also be critical to be transparent in all formal and informal communications with these various groups. The messages should, when possible, be customized to address their particular concerns. Transparency engenders trust and is the best defense against misunderstanding, misuse, and deliberate misinformation.
It will be critical to get the medical community on board, educated, and helping with the vaccine messaging. They are the gatekeepers to the patient, and are very often the most trusted source when it comes to health-related issues and topics. It seems clear that this rollout will work a whole lot better if and when we get doctors, caregivers, and other influencers on board with the data and the facts related to these vaccines.
Messengers should be honest about the risks associated with these vaccinations, and paint a vivid and clear picture about the benefits that they can bring to Americans individually and collectively. For the individual, this means reducing the risk of severe sickness, hospitalization and death. For the collective, this means a more rapid return to something resembling “normal” life.