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. It’s also critical to know what else is happening as important news breaks.

Timing is critical. 

We’re in a quickly shifting landscape where people’s beliefs and actions will change rapidly. What may be effective in one context may shift within a week or two as other contexts change. People evaluate what they trust against their existing knowledge, and there is a window of opportunity to get people information and build trust. Sharing accurate information quickly is critical to gaining their trust. You only get to be first once, and we trust what’s first most. 

Speed is important, but so is consistency. Communicators face the dual challenge of getting to people quickly with the right information and in the window of opportunity that allows them to build trust.

An important aspect of timing is repetition. Heidi Larson, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has observed that in the case of COVID-19, new information may be less trusted, especially in a context as volatile as the one in which we find ourselves. This makes it important that people hear similar messages from a range of messengers. 

By the time the  (H1N1) vaccine was available, concern was lower, and so a lot of people chose not to get it.

— Emily Brunson, MPH, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology at Texas State University.

Inoculation theory offers a way of thinking about this. It works just as vaccines do. By exposing people to a message that counters your argument and then refuting it, you can help people become more resilient to harmful or inaccurate messaging they may hear later. And just as vaccines only work when they’re administered before someone is exposed to the disease, inoculation theory works when your message is heard first.

Myiah Hutchens, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, points out “inoculation theory is perfect for the issue at hand [COVID-19 vaccine]. The idea being that having the correct information initially is better than when you’re being exposed to misinformation, because we know that information sticks, especially if it’s something we want to believe.”

Gordon Pennycook, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at University of Regina’s Hill/Levene Schools of Business, agrees adding a crucial point about critical thinking: “if you do an experiment that involves information, some people have better intuitions about what’s true versus what’s false. The benefits of critical thinking is not just that people think more critically about what they are presented with at the moment, but that they have thought about things over time. This allows them to contextualize the stuff they see better.”

What will be the situation with the virus at the time that the vaccine becomes available? Is it going to still be raging? Hopefully not like it is right now. In the US, it’s not under control, so things are getting worse. But we may not have this vaccine till some months from now, and maybe, hopefully, the situation will be calmer. If we behave ourselves, then the incidence will be low. If the incidence is low, then people will not feel a need for it [the vaccine] as much as they do now. So we know that the willingness to take a risk with vaccination will increase if you feel vulnerable and if you feel the need. But when everything looks okay, like it’s under control, why subject yourself or your child to this unknown substance if everything looks calm? One has to kind of figure out how the messaging will interact with the situation on the ground at the time that this is being considered.

— Paul Slovic, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and founder and president of Decision Research.

Given that there is little knowledge of the vaccine approval process, and curiosity about the availability of a vaccine is high, there’s an opportunity to build trust by helping people to understand this process.

Factors like the overlap of the national elections in the United States and cold and flu season create additional complexities, but may offer additional opportunities to encourage people to take vaccines.


Identify content areas where you have an opportunity to “get there first” and inoculate people with effective messages that resonate with their worldview.

Consider what else is happening at the same time and how that might affect how much people trust your message.

Repeat. While being first with a message is important, it’s also important that people continue to hear the same message from a variety of sources.