Use the Right Messengers

People act when they trust the messenger, the message and their motivations.

People within different contexts and societies trust different messengers. We want our messengers to have specific expertise and knowledge and we consider their motivation sometimes—but not always—in our trust of them.

Without question, the most effective messengers are experts and trusted leaders in our own communities—both our geographic ones and our digital ones. 

It’s important to examine who people trust, and demonstrate, where possible, that sources who are trusted within communities also trust expert institutions like the FDA or UN. 

The construct of “in-group” and “out-group” can be helpful in identifying trusted messengers. David Fetherstonhaugh, Applied Behavioral Economist, points out that “I couldn’t stress enough the importance of a message coming from within an in-group — someone that’s automatically on the inside. It’s almost like such messages even bypass deliberate cognition because they are coming from a trusted source: ‘They’re my family, or it’s my pastor, or it’s my party leader.’ So the source of messages, in-group vs. out-group, is extraordinarily important for how a message is received.”

Myiah Hutchens points out that our personal experience and observations are critical. “For the most part, we’re going to trust our in-groups until we’re forced otherwise. Right? So it’s going to be a hard issue of making sure that people’s realities are then matching up with what their in-groups are saying.”

Jay Van Bavel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at New York University, said that’s actually what some epidemiological guidelines for public communication advise: “These messages shouldn’t actually be politicized or shared by political figures. . . it would be better if you have a scientist out there sharing it.”

So you can imagine a world where you’re able to understand who the most trusted source for a particular community is based on understanding that community really, really well and then figuring out all the network connections that lead to a central individual. So we can make a guess about who the trusted source for liberals who live on the coasts are, but that could be really wrong, and the cost of having that be wrong is really, really high. As much as we’re talking about trust in testing the actual messages, figuring out who the source is possibly just as much important.

— David Markowitz, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon
Even actions that may be apolitical—like a national agency sharing a plan for distributing the vaccine when it’s available—can be seen as political. In these contexts, where messages are all seen as inherently political, identifying and underscoring a credible original source of the information can be especially important. Sources of credible facts are going to be viewed differently within different political contexts and among people of different worldviews.

The vaccine-hesitant community is particularly adept at applying this. Heidi Larson, who has done extensive research on vaccine hesitancy, says, “These anti-vaccine groups are getting traction because they are listening. They’re listening to the public. They’re hearing people express their anxieties and concerns and they leap right in there and they say, we hear you. They are sometimes much more responsive to those anxieties and fears than health officials who sometimes dismiss the concerns, just focusing on the value of vaccines, and not “hearing” or feeling  the deep anxiety that some parents are really going through.” In contrast, she says, the pro-vaccine community is significantly larger, but relies on monolithic messages and guidance. This can make people feel as though the message is anonymous. 

Jay Van Bavel, pointed out that working with people inside communities who are respected and trusted to either design or communicate the messages was likely effective in reducing the initial spread of the disease. He said, “A campaign might benefit from a social influencer, social network model of communication, in addition to a mass media model.” 

For Black Americans, for instance, barbershops turn out to be a really good place to get health information and having doctors train the barbers to talk about it turns out to be quite effective… It’s important to have the information there, but having this trusted source who the experts trained to talk about it also helps broader dissemination. And so I think thinking about whatever messaging we end up coming up with from these multiple levels will be really helpful.

— Neil Lewis, Jr. Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at Cornell University.


Understand which sources of information trusted messengers are citing within the communities you are trying to reach.

Recognize that there are trusted messengers in both offline and digital communities. It’s important to listen to both to identify trusted individuals who can help you create and share messages that will be trusted by a community.

Most people want information on a COVID-19 vaccine from people in their community

Across the four countries, the majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they would prefer to get information on a vaccine from people in their community rather than distant experts. French and German respondents were even more likely to want information from their communities.