Yesterday the New York Times daily newsletter The Morning shared their perspective on vaccine communication. The long and the short of it: when health experts spread mixed messages, they lose trust. It sounds obvious when you put it that way. But of course no health expert intended to give mixed messages. The real issue is that there was no content strategy to unify experts around what information to share.
As you can see in this section of the article, there is a lot of information about the Covid-19 vaccine. Health experts can choose what to emphasize:
Right now, public discussion of the vaccines is full of warnings about their limitations: They’re not 100 percent effective. Even vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus. And people shouldn’t change their behavior once they get their shots.
These warnings have a basis in truth, just as it’s true that masks are imperfect. But the sum total of the warnings is misleading, as I heard from multiple doctors and epidemiologists last week.
“It’s driving me a little bit crazy,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, told me.
“We’re underselling the vaccine,” Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, said.
“It’s going to save your life — that’s where the emphasis has to be right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine said.David Leonhardt, NY Times
Public health vaccine communication
As a health expert, or just as a content strategist or UX writer, you may wonder: how do I decide what information to share? When creating a content strategy for public health information, maybe we can follow Bernard Meltzer‘s advice and ask ourselves: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?
Is it true?
In this era of misinformation, it’s not a bad idea to start with the basics: is the information accurate? In the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, it’s true that the vaccine is not 100% effective. It’s also true that the vaccine will save millions of lives. Many health care professionals make a point of sharing all true information when they can.
Is it kind?
This may seem like a non sequitur, but bear with me. Kindness can be interpreted many ways. In personal conversations, being kind means considering others’ needs. Let’s take a completely unrelated example: Your spouse has a terrible haircut. “I hate your hair” is unkind. “How do you feel about your haircut?” on the other hand is gentle, and if your spouse agrees then you may be able to find a solution. In other words, kindness is about tone, and connection. It is unkind for a public health expert to share reports without context. It is equally unkind to give warnings about the vaccine without tempering the warnings appropriately.
Is it necessary?
I’ve written before about the marketing benefits of sharing some-but-not-all the information. In marketing, we want to help connect the products people need to the people who need them. Health experts right now want to connect people to the vaccines that will save their lives. We can pick and choose the most relevant information to get the message across, without confusing people.
Is it helpful?
And the clincher: is it helpful? Is it helpful to know that you should still wear a mask after being vaccinated? YES! Is it helpful to focus people on the difference between 95% and 100% effectiveness? No, because that’s not how vaccines work. The smallpox vaccine is also 95% effective, and yet most people don’t know that. What they do know – what is helpful to know – is that the smallpox vaccine is necessary to prevent smallpox outbreaks.
How to Create a Vaccine Distribution Content Strategy
Ideally, a content strategy gets created, and then everyone disseminating information can unify by using the strategy. With Covid there was no time, no ability to plan ahead. In The Morning’s article they point out the problems that come with mixed messages:
“When people feel as though they may not be getting the full truth from the authorities, snake-oil sellers and price gougers have an easier time,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote early last year.The Morning
But it’s never too late – and vaccine communication is still in the early days. Starting today, starting now, the CDC could create a content strategy. They could use the four brand pillars of truth, kindness, necessity, and helpfulness, or (on the offhand chance they don’t read this blog) they could develop their own.
What’s most important is alignment. Content strategy is the key to sending one message, and in this case that message should be clear: getting vaccinated is the #1 thing you can do to prevent Covid. Wearing a mask is the #2 thing. Do them both.
Let’s spread the word!