The federal government’s A$23.9 million COVID-19 vaccination information campaign, launched yesterday, aims to reassure the public about vaccine safety and effectiveness. It will also provide information about the vaccine rollout.
We’ve only just started to see the campaign materials appearing online, but the government also promises other communication formats, such as print, radio and outdoor advertising.
Australia has never undertaken a vaccination program of this scale, and effective communication will be crucial to its success.
So here’s the $24 million question: will this communication campaign work? Vaccine and public health communication research provide some useful insights.
Who are the spokespeople?
Research into how best to communicate risk tells us the most trustworthy spokespeople:
are competent and objective
are reliable and transparent
share the values and experiences of the audience
demonstrate empathy and address the audience’s concerns.
This video — which features a deputy chief medical officer (and infectious disease physician), a representative of the Therapeutic Goods Administration and chief nursing and midwifery officer — is a great start.
These people are widely seen as experts and trusted health-care providers. They’re not controversial or partisan figures who might be seen to have a political agenda.
But do they resonate with every audience? It might be valuable also to include some diverse and more accessible spokespeople who represent particular communities, such as cultural or religious leaders.
To increase engagement on social media, the campaign could also use respected celebrities or sports stars to share messages or act as vaccination role models. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley was used to promote the polio vaccine.
An effective communication campaign should also train and empower health-care workers such as GPs, nurses and pharmacists to discuss COVID-19 vaccines confidently with the public. This is not visible in the public campaign, but may be part of the government’s strategy.
Is it easy to understand?
Information for a wide population needs to be designed for people with different levels of health literacy — the ability to understand, access and act on health advice.
The government’s animated explainer videos demonstrate many principles of effective communication. They are relatively simple, use graphics and short bullet-point lists, and repeat their key messages.
They currently focus on passively providing information, but the best kind of public health messages are action-oriented. Hopefully, once the vaccines are actually available, the campaign will focus on behaviours such as visiting a vaccination delivery site, speaking to your GP or demonstrating where to find information.
There’s also an important balance to strike between accessibility and oversimplification. Some people with concerns about vaccines want more detailed information about safety, side-effects and efficacy. This information should also be available as part of the communication campaign.
Is it culturally appropriate?
Australia is a diverse country. Not everyone speaks English or watches government press briefings on TV. Throughout the pandemic, communication strategies that were inadequately or incorrectly translated or poorly disseminated have been rightfully criticised.
The new communication campaign plans to specifically target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Better yet, the government indicates committees representing these groups are informing its campaign. Therefore, communication materials may look very different for different groups.
This would show the government has undertaken a meaningful process of community engagement to design communication to reach everyone and resonate with their values.
Is it responsive?
From what we know so far, the communication campaign shows promise with its spokespeople, health-literate design and focus on engaging with diverse communities.
However, we don’t know whether the campaign can adapt and respond to changing events, concerns and evidence. This is one of the most important features of an effective vaccination communication campaign.
People concerned about COVID-19 vaccines commonly cite safety as one of their top concerns. So it is paramount the government proactively prepares to communicate about any side-effects or possible safety issues that arise following vaccination, and respond to events quickly. The government also needs to share safety data transparently and regularly with the public to build and maintain trust.
Monitoring social media can also help identify developing rumours and misinformation before they spread widely. This strategy, also called “social listening”, can be used to inform the communication messages and approach.
If rumours are caught soon enough, it’s possible to pre-emptively debunk — or “prebunk” — misinformation before it takes hold.
Finally, the campaign should be actively seeking public feedback and input. It should be informed by regularly measuring how people feel about vaccination and asking about their concerns.
The government could do this by setting up interactive virtual town hall meetings or Q&A sessions for the public to speak directly with spokespeople. This would demonstrate transparency and a willingness to hear and respond to issues as they arise.
There has been extraordinary coordinated effort and investment around the world to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines. Now, we need evidence-based communication about these vaccines that engages people, offers accessible, culturally appropriate information and earns their trust.