By Kristopher M. Bunting, M.D.
COVID-19 has gone from an emerging public health threat to a permanent fixture of everyday life in a relatively short period of time. COVID-19 has posed many challenges to public health, including hesitancy to receive one of the several COVID-19 vaccines available.
Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new — it has affected the public acceptance of vaccination initiatives since the early days of cowpox inoculation for smallpox. Lack of information and understanding about vaccines, misinformation, and disinformation are commonly cited as causes of vaccine hesitancy.
Fortunately, all of these causes can be addressed by providing accurate and understandable information to patients about the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccinations in general.
Communicating information about the COVID-19 vaccine (as well as other vaccines) is key to reducing vaccine hesitancy. Ensuring effective communication with patients requires a carefully thought-out strategy. Formulating a structured vaccine communication strategy can help achieve your communication objectives and anticipate barriers to communication.
The purpose of creating a communication strategy is to help ensure that patients have accurate and useful information to inform their decisions about getting vaccinated. More specifically, a communication strategy should aim to get information to individuals in a form that they can both understand and are receptive to.
Developing a communication strategy is a dynamic process, not a fixed set of steps. An effective strategy is one that provides a versatile framework within which to formulate and execute a plan while preparing to make changes to that plan.
The principles of developing a communication strategy are the same whether you aim to reach patients in a small medical practice or launch a campaign to reach a much wider population. These principles include:
- Focused goals
- A well-defined audience
- A clear message
- Effective tools for communication
Once a plan is formulated and executed, it must then be assessed and adjusted based on feedback and success metrics. Having a well-thought-out strategy is important for keeping your efforts focused on achieving your stated goal.
The first step in developing a communication strategy is to identify strategic objectives. These can include anything from increasing vaccination rates to decreasing the number of hospitalizations. Defining clear objectives or goals will help guide all other aspects of your strategy.
When defining the goals of your communication strategy, be sure that they align with the mission statement of your organization. A mission statement exists to guide decision-making processes for an organization. Likewise, the strategic goals that you formulate will guide the development of an effective communication strategy.
Goals or strategic objectives should be clearly stated and have measurable outcomes. Goals that are vague and not objectively measurable are strategically useless. You must be able to use quantitative to qualitative observations to assess whether or not you are achieving your goals. Measurable outcomes are necessary to assess the effectiveness of a communication campaign and help guide changes and adjustments to your plan moving forward.
As you develop your plan you will refer back to these goals and ask, “Does this help me achieve this goal?” Useful goals help you keep your eye on the big picture when planning the details of your communication campaign.
When creating a communication strategy, be sure to establish a well-defined timeframe for both implementation of your campaign and assessment of success metrics. Setting clear milestones will help keep your plan on track. Like all other parts of a developing strategy, timetables change as your strategy evolves.
Who are you trying to reach with information? Defining your audience will guide the selection of proper tools and technologies that will be most effective to achieve your communication goals.
Defining the scope of your campaign can help narrow down your target audience. For example, you may wish to reach an audience limited to patients in a small practice, enrollees in a local or regional healthcare system, or you may aim to reach the community at large. You may wish to focus on specific demographic groups or reach out to a broad audience.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain an updated list of underlying medical conditions, including age, that put individuals at a higher risk or suggestive higher risk for more severe COVID-19 outcomes. Depending on the goals you have set for your communication strategy, reaching high-risk patients may be a priority. Patients in this population may potentially receive the most benefit from the COVID-19 vaccine.
Defining your audience will allow you to tailor your message in a way that best reaches individual patients. The CDC provides recommendations for tailoring your message to a specific audience, emphasizing that you should not make assumptions about your audience. Once you have defined your target audience, you can then seek out the best ways to get your message into their hands.
Tailoring your message involves addressing any gaps in knowledge or understanding about the vaccine within the social and cultural context of your particular audience. Using existing research and/or conducting polls and surveys of your audience can help identify communication preferences as well as assess knowledge and attitudes about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Different audiences may have different communication preferences. This includes preferred language, preferred sources of information, and types of media that best engage the audience. Get to know your audience’s level of knowledge about the COVID-19 vaccine and where there are shortfalls in that knowledge.
Additionally, it is important to understand any social and cultural factors that influence how your audience perceives and responds to information about the vaccine. Identify the barriers to vaccination in your audience and address them directly. Your message should appeal to your audience’s values when communicating why vaccination is important.
Your message should be based on your strategic goals and tailored to your audience. You may also need to address inaccurate information.
Use facts to communicate your message. Rely on trusted scientific data and sound medical recommendations. The CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) are sources of scientific data and recommendations regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and COVID-19 in general.
Communication is a two-way street. Use your campaign to open a channel of communication between you and your audience. Incorporate contact information or web links that people can use to get additional information about the COVID-19 vaccine or ask questions that they have.
Inaccurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine can be found in many places. Misinformation (unintentionally sharing false information) and disinformation (deliberate spreading of false information) both affect vaccine confidence. The CDC provides information and guidance about addressing misinformation and disinformation.
Facts refute misinformation. Formulating a message that directly addresses misinformation should include several elements. First, lead with the facts. Second, point out inaccurate information and explain why it is inaccurate. Finally, you want to replace inaccurate information with accurate information that is both convincing and memorable.
As your communication campaign progresses, you may need to adapt your message to better achieve your strategic goals. Anticipate the need to change your message by staying up-to-date on new information, research, and CDC recommendations for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Feedback and success metrics can also help guide you to make changes to your message. It is important to observe and measure the audience’s response to your message and make adjustments accordingly. Additionally, you may want to make changes to your message to address new or more prominent misinformation as it arises.
Performing any task is easier when you use the proper tools, saving time and effort to reach desired outcomes. Understanding your audience is key to selecting effective communication tools.
Delivering Your Message
Once you have formulated a message that is tailored to your audience you must decide how to spread that message. There are many forms of communication to choose from, but not all are effective for every audience. Understanding your audience plays an essential role in making that choice.
The effectiveness of different communication methods can vary based on the target audience. Different age groups, for instance, may respond differently to text messages versus phone calls, or online advertising versus traditional media. Getting information to individuals is the goal, but, depending on the audience, this may be best achieved through direct contact, public advertising and media, or a combination of the two.
Direct contact can include phone calls, texts, emails, or postal mail. To reach a wider audience, you may employ tools such as advertising in traditional mass media, social media, or other online advertising methods.
Creating an online presence is another effective way to communicate. This can involve using a website or microsite to share information, videos, and podcasts. Broadcast media (television and radio) are also effective tools to reach a wide audience through public service announcements (PSAs), interviews, and news stories. In-person events are another tool for reaching an audience, such as community events or town hall meetings.
Additionally, to reach out to local communities, consider using “trusted messengers” to spread your message. Trusted messengers can include respected members in a community, such as teachers, local religious leaders, and other people who have the public’s trust. This also includes doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who are trusted as credible sources of accurate information. Choose a voice that people will listen to.
A large number of resources are freely available online to help plan and execute a COVID-19 vaccination communication strategy. The CDC has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response in the US. In addition to guidelines and recommendations for COVID-19 vaccine use, the CDC has developed a wealth of resources for doctors and patients. The CDC provides a wide range of materials to help disseminate COVID-19 information including images, printable materials, and widgets, buttons, and graphics for online communication. They also provide videos, graphics, and other materials specifically aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccinations for children and teens as well as other groups.
Many of these resources can be customized to meet your specific needs. Remember to work smarter, not harder. Avoid replicating work by using existing material which can effectively communicate your message.
Once a communication strategy has been developed with clear goals, a well-defined audience, a message tailored to that audience, and effective tools to reach that audience, then it is time to turn those plans into action and launch your campaign. However, this is not the last step in carrying out your COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy. Now it is time to assess the effectiveness of your strategy and adjust accordingly.
Feedback is essential to help assess how your audience perceives your message. This can help drive changes to your plan to make it more effective. Soliciting and receiving feedback from individuals can help you see what your audience actually thinks of your efforts.
There are many ways to solicit feedback from your audience. Well-designed surveys and questionnaires can provide useful structured feedback. Additionally, you can provide contact information along with your message to garner a response. Using an open-ended question (such as “What do you think of this email/website/etc.?”) can provide feedback that is not anticipated or easily quantified.
Both positive and negative feedback is important. Positive feedback allows you to see what elements of your campaign should be continued or expanded. Negative feedback, on the other hand, can tell you if elements of your campaign need to be changed in order to engage your audience more successfully.
Once your plan is put into motion, it is time to start assessing predetermined success metrics. This is essential to measure the effectiveness of your campaign and show you where you need to make changes. Part of your communication strategy should include a timeline for assessing success metrics.
Useful metrics can include things such as COVID-19 vaccination rates and hospitalizations in your audience over a specified period of time after beginning your campaign. Measures of engagement can include response rates to direct communication, web page views, or social media sharing. For public events, rates of attendance and participation can be useful metrics.
Once you have adequate objective data and subjective feedback it is time to determine what, if any, changes need to be made to your communication strategy in order to meet your strategic goals. Depending on your overall goal, you may wish to expand or extend successful elements of your campaign.
Unsuccessful elements of your campaign may require extensive reworking to get back on track; you may even need to make major strategic changes, such as adjusting your strategic goals, redefining your audience, or changing your message. Be prepared to make changes to the content of your message and method of communication in order to reach your stated goals.
Remember, a strategy is a framework within which to make changes while staying focused on a clear goal. The path to a successful communication strategy is not a straight line. Be sure to circle back and carefully re-examine your goals, audience, message, and tools in response to feedback and metrics.
This document is not a set of instructions, but rather a recommendation for building a versatile framework within which to formulate an effective COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy. This information has been assembled based on information from the CDC, WHO, and American Hospital Association.
There is no single correct way to create an effective communication strategy; there are many ways to effectively communicate information to patients. Success requires careful, thoughtful planning, execution, and assessment, but also requires the ability to adapt.
If your organization needs help creating an effective COVID-19 communication strategy, contact us. Our MDs and PhD scientific writers are capable of crafting the right messages for your audience.
- COVID-19: Underlying Medical Conditions — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Vaccines & Immunizations: How to Tailor COVID-19 Information to Your Audience — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Vaccines & Immunizations: Vaccinate with Confidence — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Vaccines & Immunizations: How to Address COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- COVID-19: Stay Up to Date with Your COVID-19 Vaccines — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- COVID-19: Communication Resources — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Public Health Image Library (PHIL) — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- COVID-19: Print Resources — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- COVID-19: Widgets, Buttons & Graphics — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Vaccines & Immunizations: Resources to Promote the COVID-19 Vaccine for Children and Teens — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- COVID-19 Vaccine Communications Toolkit — American Hospital Association