A practitioner's guide to the principles of COVID-19 vaccine communications

Principles for building trust

The factors that lead people to make choices to take vaccines are nuanced and affected by how they see the world, their perceptions of the choices people like them will make, who they trust, their perceptions of risk, consistency of message and convenience of actually getting the vaccine.

In a perfect, limitlessly resourced world, we’d have the opportunity to craft highly specific campaigns for each community and identity in the world. The vaccine would be simultaneously available to all, and our personal doctors would administer it and assure us of its efficacy.

That world doesn’t exist.

However, there are a set of principles for sharing vaccine information that can help increase trust, acceptance and demand for vaccination. In this guide, we’ll help you understand this complexity and nuance and offer principles and insights drawn from leading experts in vaccine communications that can guide your efforts.

The Principles

Worldviews

Work within worldviews, identities, and moral values—each of us has a unique set of identities, worldviews and moral values. These influence our choices and behaviors, and even what we believe to be true. Rather than investing time into messages to try to convince people otherwise, it’s worthwhile to understand what others see as right and wrong and to connect with what’s most important to them. Find the common ground between what we hope to achieve and what matters to them.

Timing

Use timing to your advantage. It’s far easier to build trust when you’re the first to articulate a message. People are most likely to trust—and stick to—the version of information they hear first.

Messengers

Use the right messengers for your audience. People act when they trust the messenger, the message and their motivations. Trusted messengers vary greatly from community to community, but there are some broad lessons we can apply.

Narratives

Make your content concrete, supply a narrative and provide value. If messages aren’t concrete and don’t include stories, our powerful sense-making brains will fill the abstraction with stories and ideas that make sense to us.

Relationships

Recognize that communities have different relationships with vaccination. In some societies, people may be fearful of vaccines, but have a strong trust in authority. In others, mandatory vaccinations have created distrust of government authorities. In others, decades of mistreatment and exploitation have resulted in a profound lack of trust in new medical treatments.

Social Norms

Change social norms to help gain acceptance. We are deeply affected by the behavior and choices of people in our networks—even people we may not have met. Examining vaccine hesitancy through the lens of social norms offers two opportunities to make a difference. The first is activating social networks and people’s perceptions of what others are doing. The second is in changing the communications norms among those communicating on behalf of the vaccine.

Emotions

Evoke the right emotions. It’s tempting to activate emotions like fear or shame to get people to take a vaccine, but fear immobilizes us, and shame is likely to achieve the opposite reaction we’re hoping for. Look to more constructive emotions like love, hope and the desire to protect to get people to act.

Motivations

Be explicit and transparent about your motivations. Our perceptions of the motivations of the messenger matters. Our motivations in seeking information are equally important. We’re less likely to trust a vaccine if we question the motives of the people advocating for us to take it.