Using behavioral insights in vaccine communication
Let’s make an experiment: type in Google some search words in Georgian related to vaccination and wait for the result. The search result will reveal all kinds of information – right and wrong – from those sites and media that are “friendly” with the search engine algorithm. Unfortunately, there is not a single official web resource among them – the Ministry of Health, the Coordination Council, the Government of Georgia or the Center for Disease Control. For example, key words “Astrazeneca anaphylaxis” or “Astrazeneca side effects” in Georgian returns official information on the fifth or sixth scroll – which is too far for to reach for a user which is an active seeker of information in the internet. And such people, according to UNICEF and WHO papers, are the easiest to convince. Today, unfortunately official information is not easily accessible for these people and they are left on their own with conflicting information from different news agencies and media.
This must be corrected. While I was writing this blog, there has been some promising activity from official sources – couple of videos produced by the National Center for Disease Control and a question-and-answer document was released last week. However, the Q&A is hidden in the labyrinths of the site and is in a downloadable Word document format. It is intended for a professional use, and not for the person who searches mostly in Latin letters and clicks on the most eye-catching link. This website of the campaign by the US government is the best example of how such an Internet resource should be organized: https://getvaccineanswers.org/.
According to various studies, vaccine attitudes are not black and white. Acceptance continuum constantly changes depending on what kind of campaign or information are people exposed to.
*Source: University of Florida, August 2020 survey, Europe and US.
In general the communication campaigns mainly address people who are either on the green side or in the middle, and we are even advised to ignore those in the red area, as it is extremely difficult to convince or engage these people. However, covid vaccination campaign is unique as we cannot stop only on the population on the “green” side, but the goal of the campaign should be to move as many people as possible to the “green” and leave as few people as possible in the “red” area. This is necessary to generate herd immunity, to reduce the spread, incidence of hospitalization and mortality.
Based on several noteworthy documents and studies, we propose a communication approach and methodology that serves one component (I underlined one, because there are several other important components) of the campaign – building trust. Creating trust is not the only solution, because human behavior often does not match the declared opinions – there can be a big error between the declared acceptance (attitude) and direct vaccination (action), and this should be facilitated by other activities. However, it all starts with trust, and it has five dimensions in a vaccination campaign.
Timing is important, because whoever speaks first will win in a particular time period. This is common and well-known in communication strategy, but in vaccination gains special importance due to the urgency of the issue. If in other campaigns being first just gives you a good opportunity to act, in vaccination it can even be decisive, because there is a long line of individuals or groups acting with unclear goals, spreading misinformation and trying to capitalize undeservedly on this wave and these people can’t wait to intervene.
So far we have lost here as well. Organized misinformers and skeptics took over the process of communication. Add to that political crisis and the polarization of the media, and we got sensational headlines, misleading reports, and most importantly, a tragic case – the death of a young nurse the day after the launch of vaccination in the country. Although the direct link to vaccination remains to be seen, it is clear that people have become alarmed and the above mentioned scale has become redder.
What needs to be done: simply put, we need to reverse the situation, and it will take ten times more effort than if we had started the campaign earlier – in November-December of last year or even in the winter. We cannot avoid the bitterness of past experience, but we must take control in our hands as soon as the next stage of vaccination begins.
If you remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no recommendation to wear a mask, then it was said that it is necessary, etc. There have been inconsistent calls from WHO and governments that have created confusion and reduced confidence. While this happens at the global level, locally situation in our country is even more complicated in this regard.
The current political crisis in Georgia creates a “good” opportunity for an interested person to hear two mutually exclusive information on different channels or from different politicians about the vaccination process. This is devastating. The most important thing is that all stakeholders speak the same language. Probably everyone agrees that the process of vaccination is equally important, regardless of political, religious or other beliefs.
What needs to be done: Officials should be able to find consensus on the main points so that coherent and consistent information reaches the population. The easiest thing would probably be for the ruling party to abandon the boycott and appear on the opposition channels about this issue. This would greatly help to increase trust, because citizens who watch these channels would prefer to get firsthand information from officials.
Statistics and scientific data are important, but one person’s experience or story makes the facts tangible. Well visualized anecdotal evidence is much more powerful than scientific evidence.
We have limped here too, because the storytelling has been taken over by skeptics and people who have little faith in science. Based mainly on Russian sources, these people spread false, often conspiracy theories, some intentionally, some unintentionally. In contrast, pro-vaccine groups and individuals do not have such a massive reach, stories do not spread through official sources.
What needs to be done: The recent proliferation of open and closed groups, volunteer initiatives and the activity of individuals in social networks is encouraging. This is the solution, although it should be taken into account that people who are already in favor of vaccination and are on the “green” side represent the bubble in these groups. For those on the “red” side, such groups are less reliable – they are perceived as funded by Soros, etc.. So it won’t lead to a breakthrough. Let’s not forget that our goal is not only to attract people with positive attitude, but also to reduce the number of detractors.
So involvement of people with different worldviews and increase the spread of official information will be critical in this struggle. So called “how to content” – detailed explanation and description of the process in various formats (video, text, infographic, poster, verbal contact, etc.). The British National Health Organization (NHS) prouced about 50 videos for the vaccination campaign in 6 languages with the participation of doctors and scientists of different races, who explain the vaccination process – where to go and what to expect, side effect, etc.
In persuasive campaigns, and perhaps in life, it is not important what is being said to us (message), but who is speaking to us. In short, we believe based on who we hear from. If the worldview of a messenger does not coincide with my worldview, I would not believe it, I would even react against it. Influencer marketing professionals know this well. Therefore, in the vaccination campaign, we should involve influentials of various sorts and taste and as many ordinary people as possible in an organized manner. Peer to peer effect – the experience of someone like me, a representative of my circle, often has much more influence than a celebrity or a recognizable face. Finally, in the survey mentioned above, you will also see who people trust most in vaccination campaign:
It is not surprising that the authority of doctors is immeasurably high. And we experienced a fiasco in this direction as well – the doctors failed to show us an example. Of course, this is a huge obstacle.
What needs to be done: mobilizing doctors should be the first priority task for those in charge of this field. A doctor who advises me to get vaccinatied, but is not vaccinated himself/herself, is obviously not going to be a good advisor. The second factor is again official information, which must be multiplied and reach all layers of society.
And finally, the role of the media in the campaign. This is a case where coverage of two sides is neither mandatory nor necessary. On the contrary, if we are promoting an anti-vaccination opinion, it should only be covered in context and should be countered with facts. This means that presenting two opinions in the hope that the audience will draw a conclusion is disastrous. The main task of the media should be to create a social norm that vaccination has a great effect and minimal adverse events.
What needs to be done: Media training has only recently taken place. In addition, it is necessary to introduce a media monitoring system (the same as during elections) and to publish who is fulfilling these instructions and how. This should force the media to act on the recommendations.
There are a lot of “musts” in this text, and refers to official elite who are able to plan and run a Covid vaccination campaign also bearing in mind constrains that these officials face. At the same time, each of us should also think about how we can influence the process and get people around us to take the vaccine to end the pandemic and open the economy. One way to do this would be to share and distribute correct and verified information or videos and other content prepared by official bodies.
*Article was first published in Forbes Woman, March 29, 2021.