A first vaccine is approved, others seem effective and set to follow, and vaccine programmes are due to be rolled out to millions, perhaps billions, around the world. As the sleeves of early adopters are rolled up, we enter a fundamentally new phase of the pandemic, yet some things remain the same. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, policymakers have had three sets of levers to pull: the socioeconomic (lockdowns, restrictions, closures); the medical/scientific (ramping up testing, buying vaccines, funding emergency hospital capacity) and, finally, the communications.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the third set of levers is just a matter of framing and phrasing. In the context of Covid-19, poor communications costs lives.
They say talk is cheap – and when compared to shutting down parts of the economy or buying millions of doses of a vaccine, that’s true. But great communications are more than just cheap: They enable effective policymaking, creating cost efficiencies elsewhere. Conversely, poor communications – which have an enormous influence on social and medical policy decisions working as intended, from test-and-trace apps being downloaded to people adhering to self-isolation protocols – can come with huge costs.
As we enter this new phase – with vaccination programmes rolling out across every nation, every locality and every doctor’s surgery – government communications will once again play a critical role in determining the success. The challenge is significant but, broken down, it is manageable and must be considered now, while mass rollouts are still being planned. There are three macro challenges that require a good communications strategy, executed in the coming days and weeks, in order to enable governments and policymakers to deploy vaccines in the most effective way possible.
The first concerns the anti-vaccine movement. In recent weeks, major social-media companies have broken with longstanding reticence and started to police their own platforms against damaging and pervasive anti-vaccination messaging. With studies (including a recent one from Pew showing an alarming increase in scepticism) suggesting that half of Americans and one-third of Brits either “definitely” or “probably” wouldn’t get a vaccine once they become widely available, the ability of these vaccines to build the herd immunity that is the key to unlocking societies and economies is threatened. Simply preventing new messages from being posted isn’t enough. Governments must actively normalise the take-up of the vaccines, and they must aggressively stigmatise and disprove anti-vaccine messages that seek to undermine this goal. It is encouraging to see that, here in the UK, the government is lining up a broad and approachable array of public figures to speak on behalf of taking up the vaccines when they become available. Creating a sense of low-risk normalcy is the key, rather than entering into a shouting match with those who seek to encourage doubt. The greatest communications error at this stage would be to treat the anti-vaxxers’ arguments as legitimate, as if there are two equally valid perspectives on a debate, rather than dismissing them (as must be done) as conspiracy theories.
The second communications challenge is to champion successful vaccines based on scientific merit – not on country of origin. With the provenance of vaccines increasingly becoming a source of national pride, governments must resist the temptation to use vaccine development to create jingoistic optimism or – even worse – to undermine or influence medical advice. This advice might, for instance, suggest that one sub-group of the population would be more appropriately treated by the AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the UK, while another would be more effectively (or as effectively) treated by the Pfizer/BioNtech or Moderna vaccines, from overseas. The de-politicisation of these medications requires a temporary suspension of the soft-power projections that have become a hallmark of some administrations in recent years. The best available vaccine, as decided by doctors, should be the right decision, irrespective of the flag on the side of the box (of which, hopefully, there will be none).
Finally, and perhaps most complex, is the need to explain and manage the process of who gets a vaccine first and who has to wait. It is a two-sided communications task. The first is the positive: how to tell those most at-risk, who are likely to have been the most affected by months of shielding and isolation, that they are set to re-emerge into the world. Many will not be ready. Most will be afraid. To bring these vulnerable groups from the security of their homes into the waiting rooms of doctors’ surgeries in large numbers requires nuance and more than just an assertion that “it’s the end of lockdown”. The parallel task, however, relates to those who have to wait longer, especially those who may be low-risk medically but have perhaps experienced a disproportionate impact due to their lack of personal immunity or struggles with their mental health. Telling those people that they will have to wait will be difficult. It requires establishing a sense of a public mission and common good, as well as clearly explaining the vaccination roadmap and timetable from the outset so that those who must wait understand why and for how long.
The immediate communications challenges around this new phase are significant: Defeat and deter the anti-vax brigade. Let medical advice, not empty nationalism, guide which vaccine is the right one for a patient or population. Manage the rollout so the at-risk come forward but the low-risk know why they’re waiting. Advertising campaigns and smart slogans alone won’t do it. Governments need to abide by the principle that “everything communicates” – every word, every gesture, every action, every message – and realise that only by being truly vigilant in how they behave, in how they speak and act in every moment, that these three challenges can be overcome. For the great social and medical policy achievements of recent months to truly take effect, and for the pandemic to be defeated, politicians must be vigilant and intentional in their communications. To fail to communicate effectively, when so much has been accomplished and an end is in sight, would be a disastrous and entirely avoidable misstep.