Op-Ed

Giving vaccine communications our best shot

Now that The Bahamas has sufficient supplies to vaccinate a large percentage of the population, vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine sentiment are going to be the most significant obstacles to realizing the full potential of vaccines as a vital tool in our fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

For months, our major means of communicating about the vaccines has been a series of government official-led national addresses rightly encouraging people to get vaccinated, but this call to action was undermined by a shortage of vaccines.

Our most recent polling on COVID-19 health measures also revealed that while the message might have been right, the messengers may not have been.

When we asked Bahamians who they trust to talk to them about vaccines, nine percent said the minister or Ministry of Health. Even more concerning, only two percent trusted “the government”, while 13 percent trusted no one.

With the recent arrival of hundreds of thousands of vaccines and the promise of hundreds of thousands more, we are in a new phase in our fight against COVID-19. As we prepare to vaccinate every eligible person within our borders, we must also begin ramping up our messaging.

Press conferences and national addresses are a great initial way to address a nation and a good way to get in the headlines the next day, but they are not, in and of themselves, a communications strategy. If there was ever a time to prioritize the funding and rolling out of a robust COVID-19 vaccine communications campaign, this is that moment.

If and when such a campaign materializes, it should be aligned with best practices to ensure that we are maximizing the impact of every dollar spent.

It should include a flood of TV ads, billboards, pamphlets, radio ads, and web content, and should target a range of groups, including people with varied beliefs and reasons for hesitancy. We won’t get results overnight, but anything worth doing will require a sustained and strategic investment of time, energy, and resources.

An effective campaign will adapt to changing circumstances due to current events and recent developments. Any adverse events, such as vaccine-related illnesses or a shortage in supplies, while inconvenient to talk about, should be addressed in a fact-based and pragmatic way that pushes key messages while countering misinformation and fearmongering.

As noted above, trusted messengers play an important role in delivering any message. Including government officials and health officials is unavoidable, but messengers should also reflect a broad range of people.

For example, while “the government” scored low when we asked who Bahamians trusted to talk to them about the vaccine, family doctors and healthcare providers scored relatively higher (23 percent). Similarly, hospital administrators, doctors and nurses at hospitals were also more trusted (20 percent).

Social media influencers, community leaders, local celebrities, and even everyday citizens can also be great messengers when utilized appropriately. The tendency to only have senior government officials speak to the public can severely limit the reach and effectiveness of the message.

The vaccine campaign’s language should be inclusive and empathetic, and officials and authority figures should shy away from language that can be perceived as scolding the public.

Similarly, the channels we use to communicate about the vaccines are also important to consider.

When Bahamians were asked where they wanted to see information about vaccines, television news was mentioned three times more often than Facebook, for example.

Well-produced social media videos are important, but the research seems to suggest that perhaps leveraging television news through an earned media strategy could have an even greater impact.

The conversation should also be two-way.

One of our core values at Open Current is ensuring that our communications strategies involve an element of “listening”.

While there are legitimate concerns about public and virtual events being railroaded by people with political or anti-vaccine agendas, there are ways to address the concerns of people through controlled channels that ensure that any public discussion is productive, positive, and genuine.

Social media monitoring and rapid response to vaccine misinformation should be constant. Direct interaction with concerned members of the public through virtual channels is a great way to address specific concerns one person at a time.

Focus should be placed on the future while recognizing that there will likely be a long path to normalcy. The objective should be to promote optimism within the realm of what is possible and realistic.

Communicating unrealistic expectations about the ending of protocols or speaking of vaccines as a panacea for the pandemic will only set us up for failure in the long run and generate mistrust when these assertions do not pan out.

When it comes to any COVID-19 communications, data is our best friend.

Communicating with the public should include constant updates on the latest trends and insights from public health data and global research. People do not want to hear baseless hopes or affirmations.

They want information they can trust, and they want to understand why vaccinations, as well as the current public health protocols, are necessary.

Even the most vaccine hesitant people are more likely to be impacted by the data over the long term. In fact, we are already seeing hesitant people who were convinced to get vaccinated after seeing millions of people get vaccinated around the world with very few incidents.

But data is useless without storytelling. All public health protocols, statistics, developments, and decisions should be packaged within a narrative framework intended to drive people to get vaccinated.

Whatever story we decide to tell, we should be sure that it remains consistent across all messengers, mediums, and formats. Storytelling is the glue that ties our collective success together.

Remember that the effort to arrest the spread of COVID-19 is both a marathon and a sprint. Patience, strategy, and consistency are what we need to be effective.

Most of all, communicators must remain disciplined and dedicated to the objectives as we work to beat back the worst of this pandemic and protect ourselves and those around us.

• Joey Gaskins Jr. is a senior partner at Open Current, a Bahamian research & insights, government and public relations firm. You can reach Joey at joey@ouropencurrent.com

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