Vaccines, public confidence and comms

By Julio Romo, public relations consultant and digital strategist.

We are at the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Scientists have done an incredible job in creating a vaccine against this virus. They have done it at pace, but with confidence and within regulatory guidelines.

What has helped them deliver this is the support that they’ve received from governments around the world who have underwritten the risk. It really is a question of ‘where’s a will there’s a way’.

Science has delivered, but the hard work is now on developing a global immunisation campaign that allows the world to return to some form of normality. This is going to be no mean feat, given that we live in an environment where misinformation and conspiracy theories are rife and science is questioned.

So how are we going to succeed?

Let’s start by looking at us, the people. Unlike times in previous pandemics, the way that we consume media today has changed. Many of us are connected through social media. We get the news from Facebook, online sites and forums. We are connected to friends and family, as well as others with whom we share interests and concerns, through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and other messaging channels.

Social media has given us all a voice. But it has allowed others to share opinions over facts. Opinions that stick.

In Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2010 film Inception, his character Cobb asks a key question, ‘What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere’.

It is the understanding of how ideas are formed that as professional communicators we need to spend more time getting to grips with.

The first of a series of vaccines has now being rolled out in the UK with the Pfizer BioNTech gaining emergency approval in the US.

Yet, while we all want to return to a semblance of normality in life and work, a recent YouGov survey highlights that one in five (21%) saying they are unlikely to get it and 12% are unsure. These are numbers that we don’t need.

So how do we give people confidence?

Firstly, let’s listen to their concerns, something easier said than done.

Any public health communications campaign needs to be developed from the perspective of designing the messaging and engagement around not what we want to tell them, but what we want people to understand. In the battle against misinformation around the vaccine, never has audience research been more important.

The Behavioral Insights Team states that there is a balance to be found on how information is presented and when too much data can lead to confusion. This is an issue that affects science, especially when the detail is essential?

How do you communicate science to the general public? In this case, when engaging with people who have concerns about the vaccine it is best to be transparent and keep the language simple. Making it relatable.

The communications strategy needs to be designed around a clear understanding of people’s concerns. Messaging needs to be relatable and simple.

It took close to a year to create a vaccine. With the roll-out of the vaccines now underway, communications and engagement initiatives need to work in step to help us keep the most vulnerable safe and some for of normality return.

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