Read the room, skip the shame, and 6 more ways to make COVID-19 vaccination a social norm 

For a vaccine to end the coronavirus pandemic, people have to be willing to be vaccinated — but only half of Americans surveyed say they’re on board. The way governments, news outlets and public health organizations present the vaccine will influence its acceptance, leading to a set of recommendations created by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications and released by Verified, a United Nations initiative.

Gleaned from interviews with 16 leading scholars, the recommendations include eight principles public health officials, NGOs and news outlets can leverage to increase trust, acceptance and demand for vaccination and save lives.

“People decide if they’re comfortable getting the vaccine based on how they see the world, their perceptions of the choices people like them will make, and who they trust,” said Ann Christiano, the center’s director and a professor in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. Christiano’s team asked researchers who study vaccine hesitancy what drives the behavior, what message strategies have been effective, and how to make getting vaccinated a social norm. 

These common themes emerged:

  • Work within worldviews, identities and values. By finding the common ground with what matters to the audience, communicators can reinforce that the vaccine is a way to return to the activities and behaviors that matter most.
  • 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. 
  • Use the right messengers for the audience. People act when they trust the messenger, the message and their motivations. While trusted messengers vary greatly from community to community, ideally, the messenger is someone with deep expertise: a doctor, a scientist or a public health practitioner. Trusted messengers might also be those in our “in-groups,” people we see as being like us and sharing our values.
  • Make the content concrete, supply a narrative and provide value. If messages aren’t concrete and don’t include stories, our brains will fill the abstraction with stories and ideas that make sense to us.                        
  • 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. Different societies also have different relationships with authority. In societies where people trust authorities, they’re more likely to accept direction even if they don’t support it.
  • 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. Activating influencers in people’s social networks to change perceptions can help, as can shifting the approach to communicating about the vaccine so that messages resonate with audiences.
  • 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 wrong reaction. Look to more constructive emotions like love, hope and the desire to protect.
  • Be explicit and transparent about your motivations. The perception of the messenger’s motivation matters. 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.

What remains unknown is how patterns of resistance to other vaccines apply to COVID-19. Even with that limitation, Christiano said, “science-informed messages are the best tools we have.” 

UF News November 18, 2020