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  • 23 Apr 2021
  • 5 min read
  • by Brian Coane

5 lessons from global vaccines confidence campaigns

Vaccines are more important than ever before but convincing the public to take them can be challenging. Our Client Partner for Health, Brian Coane, looks at the lessons we’ve learned about overcoming hesitancy and building trust in vaccines through our global campaigns.

Communicating about vaccines has never been a straightforward task. From the time of Jenner’s earliest breakthroughs to the present day, vaccines have always sparked debate. As the science advances, it becomes more complicated to explain how vaccines work. And of course the very nature of vaccines is that, when they work best, their impact is invisible and this means their perceived value has been gradually diminishing in certain groups around the world.

But with all that’s happened over the past year, there’s never been such attention on vaccines. Almost everyone on the planet has had their life irrevocably affected by COVID-19. At this very moment, hundreds of millions of people around the world are choosing to be innoculated. And government, industry, and medical professionals are working tirelessly to increase access and talk to the public about vaccination. One of our greatest challenges in telling the story of COVID-19 vaccines is the pace at which they have been developed. Though scientists see this as a testament to decades of progress and unprecedented collaboration, members of the public see this as a cause for concern. And the degree to which the world is watching these vaccines means that statistically insignificant instances of side effects are given disproportionate attention, increasing fear amongst those who are already hesitant.

At Leith, working with the pharmaceutical industry and government has given us a window into this innovative yet challenging world. The science and endeavour have been nothing short of super human. By comparison, developing communications campaigns for vaccines is a workaday task. However, presenting it in a way that builds enough confidence to persuade someone who is hesitant to roll up their sleeve is not.

Building confidence in vaccines is not simple - because vaccines are not simple. For someone who is hesitant about vaccines, the choice comes with a host of concerns - ranging from distrust of organisations, fears over safety, religious reasons, and of course, the hope that if others get innoculated, they won’t have to. In our experience in behaviour change campaigns the critical factor is to ensure that we focus not just on the scientific story, but also on the emotional side of the argument. Most surveys indicate the main concern people have is over safety and side effects. But it doesn’t follow that an explanation of the scientific facts is enough to reassure.

Our beliefs and decisions are made up of a mix of the rational and emotional. We need to take both into account to be successful. The science can provide the rational facts to build reassurance but confidence and trust comes from understanding societal barriers. These barriers also indicate how we can connect with audiences emotionally when the content is scientific in nature. Here’s five ways that we’ve found are effective to do that in working on COVID-19 vaccine campaigns.

1. Hearing directly from the people making the vaccines builds trust.

Vaccines bring us closer is the theme of World Immunisation Week which ties in well with our work on #TeamVaccines for the IFPMA, who represent the research-based pharmaceutical companies and associations across the globe. Our creative idea was based on a ‘behind the scenes' approach featuring the people making the vaccines. The pharma industry can be considered quite faceless, but we wanted to show that the people working on COVID-19 vaccines need them as much as the rest of us do. By featuring employees within the industry, we were able to make the messages around safety more trustworthy.

Our creative approach introduced our ‘cast’ as ordinary people affected by the virus in the same way as everyone else. Having lost people close to them, worrying about loved ones working on the frontline in healthcare and having to balance domestic and work life through these difficult times. Only when we’ve heard their personal stories do they reveal that they are working to get COVID-19 vaccines to the world.

This human message generated a positive response. It also allowed us to tell an international story. Reflecting the global effort, we heard from voices around the world highlighting that COVID-19 is a global issue, ‘we’re all in this together’ and scientists are working towards a common goal.

2. People take notice of messages of hope for the future.

Working with the Scottish Government on their campaign to support the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine we also took a very human approach. Our creative idea shows people from all walks of life rolling up their sleeves ready to get the vaccine. As they roll up their sleeves, they explain their reasons for making that choice. This enabled us to carry rational, scientific messages but also to remind people that the vaccines are our best route back to the things that we’ve missed during the pandemic.

Observing research into the campaign around the early days of vaccines approval it was interesting to hear people talk in great detail about clinical trials and efficacy. In focus groups the most likely response was to be positive about getting vaccinated. But when the moderators dug deeper it was easy to see that people are hesitant by nature. Just as not everyone wants to be the first on the dancefloor, some people said they’d be happier once they’d seen others make their move.

This was particularly the case with younger age groups. Many were not against vaccination, but in their personal weighing up of the risks, the threat of COVID-19 to them was less significant and some might hang back. To provide a nudge we gave a positive message of united effort, everyone pulling together to do their bit to get back to the things they loved most.

We also made sure the call to action in the advert fitted with this tone - by asking people when offered the vaccine to please take it. The tone was about coming together, not telling people what to do. Recognising that it is a choice resonated well with the audiences.

3. Build understanding that safety has not been sacrificed for speed.

The perceived speed of COVID-19 vaccines being developed has made some people concerned, even if the speed has been made possible by the innovation and collaboration that has taken place. We've benefited from innovation today that is the result of decades-long research and development.

For COVID-19 there has been a level of collaboration never seen before to produce the number of vaccines we need. Some of our work with EFPIA, who represent the research-based pharmaceutical companies and associations across Europe, has focussed on this area. In a series of short films, in podcasts and on social media we’ve been providing this important context to the vaccine development process.

4. Including 'people like me' as part of the conversation is important.

There is a risk that the people who are most hesitant about vaccination feel that many of the messengers are not ‘people like me’, so reject their appeals. We often hear that campaigns should feature trusted voices. For some groups the most trusted voices are healthcare professionals and there’s no doubt that a reassuring chat with their doctor would be enough for them. However, there is a risk that we end up with too many voices from groups who can be perceived as part of the establishment. That’s why in our work with the Irish Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Association we made sure to feature ‘ordinary people’.

Our campaign features Fergus, Sarah, Stephen, Gary, Owen Rosie, and Ruth - a mix of new mums, small business owners, grandads, and nurses who have all been affected by COVID in different ways, and want to show Ireland what vaccines mean to them. Gary, a young Irish man, never worried about getting vaccinated for flu until his father was diagnosed with cancer last year. Now he recognises getting the flu vaccine can be life saving for the people around him. Sarah, a new mum, hasn’t been able to introduce her baby to her family. She is getting vaccinated so she can have those precious moments with her family. These are just some of the ways we are featuring Irish voices explaining the value of vaccination through real stories of suffering and hope.

5. Communications need to be fit for today's media, but the challenges to acceptance of vaccines is a long game.

Vaccines are invisible medicine and when we don't tend to 'see' the benefit of them, we forget how much we owe to them. Hesitancy is not a new issue, but in recent times has been fuelled by social media. Vaccines Today was set up 10 years ago to give vaccines a voice. It was both a response to H1N1 pandemic and the growing influence of the divisive social media echo chamber.

Working with Vaccines Today reminds us the most important lesson we should take from the focus on vaccine communications right now is that the time to tackle any hesitancy is before we need people to take vaccines. It’s not a surprise that there are some concerns when what we are doing is so unusual: Vaccinating the world in a short space of time with a number of new vaccines. The mix of data available, real and perceived risks, personal and heard experiences are creating a landscape in which some people have doubts. Decisions on vaccines are rarely determined by a single belief, but by different opinions, values and versions of events that come together to create a point of view. Shaping those views at the point at which a vaccine is being offered will always be a challenge. We need an ongoing effort to build confidence in the benefit of vaccines not just for our health but for our businesses, the economy, our social contact and for us all.

Brian Coane

Brian Coane

Client Partner - Health

Brian leads our creative work in health. With 15 years experience in public health campaigns he brings a strong understanding of the patient perspective. He is currently leading the teams working with EFPIA, IFPMA, IPHA, the Scottish Government and Vaccines Europe. Brian is a Council member of the Advertising Association and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.