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  • 07 Dec 2021
  • 4 min read
  • by Brian Coane

A five point plan for vaccine communications

How to make vaccine communications better now and after the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s because we’re coming to the end of the year and it’s a time to reflect, but as we pass the anniversary of when the first COVID-19 vaccine was given to Margaret Keenan, it’s interesting to consider whether it’s been a good year for vaccines.

Thinking back to late 2020 when the results of clinical trials and approvals from regulators started to make the news, there was a sense of excitement that science would conquer COVID-19, with vaccines leading the battle charge.

But as vaccines became available there were many questions. Would we have enough of the raw materials to make these lifesaving vaccines? Could we make the billions of vaccines the world needed? Could we transport them all around the world and do that in an equitable way across rich and less wealthy nations? Could governments organise mass vaccination programmes in record time? In contrast to these challenges, putting together an effective communications campaign seemed a straightforward task.

However, over the past year nearly all of these challenges have been overcome. Science has triumphed. Where there has been political will and economic necessity there have been mass vaccination campaigns throughout the world. And yet one challenge remains – vaccine hesitancy, a challenge that was abundantly clear before the pandemic.

In 2019 the WHO declared vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – as threatening to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Over the past year there has been an unparalleled level of communications to tackle vaccine hesitancy. Yet it remains stubbornly present. It is possible the pandemic will lead to higher levels of hesitancy and more negative perceptions of vaccines than before.

Working with the pharmaceutical industry and government on vaccine communications at Leith, we have experienced many of the challenges. Equally, we have learned a lot. So, what do communications need to do to help get us out of the pandemic and create more positive perceptions of vaccines?

Here’s a five-point action plan for better vaccines communications.

1. Use emotion to overcome communications fatigue

There has probably never been a time when people have been so bombarded with health communications – on vaccines, on COVID-19 measures, on restrictions. We know from the Advertising Association research into trust in advertising more broadly that advertising bombardment creates a negative reaction. Research backs up anecdotal feedback that bombardment does and is causing fatigue – people are switching off. To overcome this, we need to lead with strong emotional communications.

It may seem that the logic of getting vaccinated is compelling, but the evidence shows the more you empathise and connect with people the more effecting and long-lasting your advertising will be. Research by System1 for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) during the pandemic reaffirmed the power of empathising with audiences and making creative choices to strike the right emotional notes.

2. Turn up the volume on social proof
It’s understandable that there is often a focus on talking about specific groups in which there is a low uptake of vaccines. But we should remember the evidence on social proof and emphasize that what most people do is get vaccinated. Research by Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, showed even when people claim that a more rational message will determine their behaviour, they are more influenced by the behaviour of others. Moreover, we need to be careful not to create negative social proof. As strategist Richard Shotton points out in his book on choice “Communications fail when they stress that an unwanted behaviour is commonplace.” The more we highlight, in every group, that the majority of people have made the choice to get vaccinated the better.

3. Small nudges

It might not merit a Nobel Prize but the work in getting communications live to support campaigns around COVID-19 has been a major achievement. However, perhaps in the rush to deliver and focus on mass vaccination we’ve missed some of the small nudges that can be effective. We know at Leith from the work we’ve done on campaigns such as Organ Donation or Early Cancer Detection that even a small change can make a significant difference.

Research at Princeton University into why many Americans fail to get life-saving vaccines identified 19 nudges to boost adoption of the flu shot. The biggest nudge was text messages that reminded patients twice and indicated that the appointment was reserved for them. This is an example of some of the simple techniques that could be used more to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.

4. Focus on the benefit to me

One year on from the first COVID-19 vaccine we are at a very different point in the pandemic. I know I’ve had quite a few conversations recently where the sentiment has been ‘enough already’. This is more significant than just general fatigue. It is affecting motivations to act. A year ago, doing it to protect others or doing it for the healthcare workers on the frontline was highly motivating for many. But as the twists and turns of the pandemic play out most people feel like they’ve done their bit. Our communications for 2022 need to be first and foremost focussed on the benefit to the individual.

5. Clarity and transparency are now vital

We are starting to suffer from the effectiveness of our communications, which having helped generate remarkable vaccination levels, have also created the impression that vaccines would be a ‘silver bullet’. It can be difficult, particularly for those in leadership positions in government, healthcare or in the pharma industry to say they don’t know the answers and even when they do, that things might change. But if we are to take people with us on what looks increasing like being an ongoing programme of vaccines against COVID-19, clarity and transparency will be vital.

What can we hope to come from this five-point plan?

It would be a missed opportunity on an unthinkable scale were we to come out of the pandemic with trust in vaccines lower than when it began. These are extraordinary times, but one year on from the first COVID-19 vaccine it feels like we are in it for the long-haul. We need to remember that most people who have any concerns about vaccines tend to have the most genuine of reasons. Often when people share these concerns or raise doubts they are doing so because they care. For example, as a parent I feel an added pressure in supporting the decision of my teenager to get vaccinated.

We need to provide a positive, motivating narrative, making clear that being on ‘Team Vaccines’ is the choice the vast majority makes. Building trust by communicating the facts clearly. Where there are uncertainties, making a balanced case and being humble enough to say that things are likely to change. But, most importantly, that vaccines are enabling us to make progress down the road that started with Margaret Keenan, to the end of the pandemic.

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.