Karen Steel at Granicus discusses how local government communications could significantly help to stop the spread of COVID misinformation, especially when it comes to vaccinations
The first phase of the roll out of the vaccination in the UK has largely been hailed as a success, as targets to get it out to the top four priority groups – care home residents and staff, frontline workers, over to those over the age of 70 – have been consistently hit.
The second phase of the programme will see the vaccine offered to increasingly younger age groups.
For this second phase, communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine takes place in a different landscape. There is endless information out there on the vaccine, readily available online and on social media platforms which are more likely to be used by the younger groups next in line. However, so much of it is misinformation, such as claims that it isn’t safe. Making sure that people are able to access the correct information on the entire process is critical in order to encourage widespread take-up of the vaccine.
This is where education from a trusted source comes in. And regardless of what some people may think, your local council is still considered a trusted source. We saw this to the nth degree back in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic when people flocked to sign up to bulletins on our customers’ websites. Unlike media reports, which can sometimes have a political leaning or have to offer ‘both sides’, local authorities work hard to be apolitical in the information they put out. There are whole policies and regulations devoted to it.
It appears that there is not yet a clear path set out for local authorities on their role in the vaccination roll out and this is something that needs to be clarified as soon as possible. It is a massive project to undertake with a regional focus, and according to the LGA, it is vital councils are involved. Many councils have begun to address this need with newsletters and understand the important role they can play in ensuring equitable vaccine distribution given their deep understanding of individual community context and ability to identify those communities and neighborhoods in greatest need.
It is highly likely that councils will be responsible for sharing information once mass vaccination takes place amongst a wider range of groups, and preparations will need to be made.
Approaching vaccine communications
First, if you find yourself responsible for preparing any communications on the virus, acknowledge you don’t have to do all the work yourself. Local authorities are supplied with information straight from Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, nicely packaged by Public Health England and the NHS in easy-to-understand formats. Do look at what they’ve provided, what shapes and formats it comes in and which of your channels and audiences they’re best suited for.
Another way to get ahead of the game is to prepare a list of the different questions you hear the public asking. It’s worth speaking to your call centre staff to find out if they’re hearing questions about the vaccine. These will likely be along the the lines of safety, timing and logistics.
Due to their proximity to their residents and communities, local councils are in a unique position to consider the different risk groups and why they might be hesitant to participate in the programme – elderly people, social care workers, people with disabilities, young children – and therefore answer specific questions they may have – there is a misconception that people’s concerns are limited to beliefs around ‘lack of testing’ but there is a wide and varied range of questions people may have, particularly around whether the ingredients are in keeping with religious or dietary requirements, and whether there are any adverse affects for certain health issues.
It will be important for councils to question how they currently engage with their community. If you’ve been using a communication platform, such as GovDelivery, to put out regular communications over the past year and had the foresight to ask your subscribers to answer questions about themselves, you can do some analysis and begin leveraging that data to build more targeted messaging. It’s also not too late to get started now. Reach out to your current audience and ask them to share a bit more about themselves – a brief poll can provide tremendous foundations for more targeted messaging.
It’s also worth remembering the fundamental repetition of key messages: the vaccine is safe, you will be contacted when it’s your turn, the ongoing importance of ‘hands/face/space’. If you have page watch bulletins, such as your Twitter feed, which go out automatically, add a linked image which goes to government guidance about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
Your staff are your biggest resource
More than ever, the value of local government and public sector staff has shown itself during the events of the past 12 months – but your staff are also human beings with their own lives, worries and questions and keeping everyone informed internally is equally important as informing the public when it comes to creating consistent messaging.
For those that have access to the platform for internal and external comms, consider creating a communications plan, with core messages around the vaccination programme to leverage. By circulating these key messages to the team, they will have a consistent set of messages to leverage in their day to day work.
Respond don’t react
If the messaging changes or if the questions you’re being asked take an unexpected turn, take a step back, take a breath and approach the new situation logically and (if possible) using the data at your disposal.
This is possibly the biggest challenge many communications professionals will be part of in their lifetime and the stakes are high – truly life or death when it comes to vaccinating as much of the population as possible. You’re not alone in this so reach out to your neighbouring authorities, peers or do some research to see what other people are doing.
And finally, evaluate as you go. It’s a lot easier to keep a record of how your bulletins, tweets or Facebook posts are working as you go than to go back in three months’ time and sift through piles of reports. Determine what it is you will measure to track success and keep a running total – this will also help you to pivot if you decide something isn’t working as well as you hoped.