The rise of the ‘nervy-vaxxer’: overcoming one of comms’ greatest challenges

Without mass compliance, vaccines won’t work. Engine, MHP and Mischief's head of health explains how a ‘health-sumer’ approach can defeat hesitancy.

The whole world has held its breath as news of potential vaccines for Covid-19 have emerged. When Pfizer’s candidate was approved for use in the UK on 2 December, some reported crying with relief that this annus horribilis might be coming to an end.

Yet not everyone is going to be queuing up outside their GP's surgery on launch day to receive their shot, hungry like a kid awaiting the new PS5.

Many people are sceptical, many are hesitant, but for a vaccine to actually be the solution we have all been waiting for, we need the majority of people to comply. So, how does comms support this and if we were in charge, what would we be advising?

Creative diversity 

From age to ethnicity, it is an unavoidable fact that vaccine uptakes vary across demographics – so, too, should government communications.

A nervous, pregnant woman requires a different tone of persuasion from a cavalier teen; a middle-aged Jamaican man needs a different line from an elderly Pakistani woman.

Evidence tells us that similarity of messenger is more effective than accuracy or experience: we are more likely to listen to someone if they look like us, share our world views or (seemingly) come from a similar background. All audiences should, therefore, have their own messenger, their own content. 

Hyper-localisation must be applied as far as budgets can stretch and it should be executed with creative partners who reflect the target audience. Your chances of persuasion multiply when you are talking the same language. 

Meet rational concerns with rational answers 

Unlike anti-vaxxers, the concerns of nervy-vaxxers are rational. It is true that this vaccine has been turned around in record time. It is hard to comprehend, if you don’t immerse yourself in medicine development processes, how quickly it has been approved and it is tricky to understand how long-term side effects can be measured when no long term has elapsed.

There is a temptation to avoid talking about concerns, so as not to highlight them, but when the concerns are this rational and the stakes are this high, there should be a strong commitment to allaying them directly. Empathise with the concern, debunk it without condescension and reinforce the positive. Showing an understanding of nervousness is a critical step to overcoming it.

Rebellious influencers 

We’ve heard that the government plans to use "sensible" celebrities and influencers to spread its message.

This is likely to be very effective for achieving reach among the already converted, but nervy-vaxxers need more than to be reached, they need to be persuaded, too. Sensible celebrities can also be read as “celebrities you would expect to be pushing the vaccine”.

Also, this isn’t an ad for life insurance, the influence needs to be authentic. To be truly effective, the government should covet rebellious influencers – those who are known for being questioning, cautious and have maybe even vocalised concerns about the vaccination programme. A nervy-vaxxer to nervy-vaxxer endorsement gives you a double boost: reach and the power of persuasion. 

Consider a small dose of humour

A global pandemic is no laughing matter, but this does not mean vaccine communications should be immune to humour. Arguably, the most commonly heard objection to government rhetoric is that it is coming with a sense of coercion.

Agency and choice is key. Too much choice, and people get grumpy; not enough or none at all, and you get the same. Give people a sense of choice, of control and you are more likely to achieve your outcome.

The other consideration is that rewarding, hopeful, positive language is more likely to get someone to start doing something new, whereby negative language should be reserved for when you want someone to stop an action. Punitive measures such as flight bans should be a last resort "stick"; the public also need "carrot", and humour can be the juiciest of carrots – particularly with a younger audience. Be it more jovial influencer content, or just a clever bit of copy, an injection of fun is the perfect antidote to feelings of coercion.

Kate Pogson is head of health at Engine, MHP and Mischief. She has 15 years’ experience in pharmaceutical and healthcare communications and an academic background in biochemistry and molecular policy

Photo: Justin Paget/Getty

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