Strategies for Communicating About COVID-19 Vaccinations

Consumers already have many questions regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and the list will only continue to grow with the phased rollout of vaccines. Though there is not a set timeframe for when the vaccine will be available to everyone, hospitals and health systems should start to prepare their communications plans immediately. While this task may seem daunting, especially given the number of unknowns, there are four main areas of focus that can help guide the planning process:

  1. Address Common Vaccination Concerns

In a national consumer survey about COVID-19 vaccines, the top three concerns about getting vaccinated were:

  • Potential side effects – 47%
  • Contracting COVID from the vaccine – 22%
  • Belief that the vaccine is not effective – 9%

It’s important to address the numerous concerns that individuals may have regarding the vaccine as this is the first step in establishing a line of communication with the public. Be prepared to address all areas of concern and include evidence to support responses. Consumers will be more likely to trust an organization that acknowledges their concerns and addresses them with empathy. One of the best ways to do this is to continually provide up-to-date information about the vaccine rollout. If side effects do appear, be sure to acknowledge them and share details about how they were addressed and what the outcomes were. Listen to patients and to the public to stay aware of, and address, new concerns as they arise.

  1. Build Support for Getting Vaccinated

Generating support for COVID vaccines is important as vaccines are considered to be crucial in achieving herd immunity. Communication about vaccination efforts is also important in improving overall health and safety, curbing COVID hospitalizations and managing the spread of the virus. Hospitals and health systems are in the best position to generate this support as hospitals, doctors and nurses are rated as the most trusted sources of healthcare information; far above the CDC, public health officials, health insurers and the media.

Frequently speak to the importance of vaccinations and explain the efforts that your organization is taking to ensure they are administered safely. As healthcare workers are the first to be vaccinated, this presents a great communications opportunity. Have your vaccinated workers tell their stories about getting vaccinated and why they feel it is important. As healthcare workers have been acknowledged as national heroes throughout the pandemic, the public is receptive to hearing their stories and their messages of support for the vaccine. Consider filming these stories as audiences typically engage more with video messages. You can also build support by speaking to the positive outcomes of widespread vaccination; communities are ready for a message of positivity after a pandemic year marked by fear and negativity. Be sure to continually elicit vaccination support through frequent messaging that is sent through various channels.

  1. Develop a Plan for Handling Challenges

Be prepared for communications challenges and develop a plan to address them. Having a solid plan in place for how to respond to certain challenges and the channels on which they are issued can make handling controversial ideas and comments easier. Some issues that may cause communications challenges include:

  • Public distrust of vaccines.
  • Healthcare employees who are vocal about not being vaccinated.
  • Healthcare workers and long-term care facilities receiving vaccines before anyone else.
  • Questions about the availability of vaccines in later phases.
  • Confusion about the second dose.
  • Side effects, both short-term and long-term
  • Changing guidance from the CDC and public health officials.
  • The relevancy of the flu shot when the COVID vaccine is available.

Always be armed with the latest information in order to communicate the most accurate messages when addressing challenges. It also helps to have a plan in place that addresses specific channels of communications, including:

  • Social Media: Social media is open ground for all types of public commentary. You need someone on staff who is focused on social media channels and addressing information that may be posted on your organization’s social sites. Be prepared to answer questions as well as address false information. Expect and plan for negativity as well as how to address it: Will you remove false information and negative comments or respond? Will you block individuals who repeatedly make negative comments about your facility or others? It may also be helpful to establish and post a community code of conduct for your social media pages and outline the repercussions for members who violate these terms.
  • Media Inquiries: The media will often look to hospitals and health systems for the latest information on treating COVID cases as well as for input on vaccines and guidelines. Identify an individual or a team who will speak on behalf of your facility. Choose a leader and/or physician who is well-spoken, charismatic and can speak with empathy. Ensure that they have the latest updates on what is happening at your facility and develop a unified voice when responding to inquiries. Develop a process for responding to the media: Who will deliver the message and be cited? Who needs to be involved in the development and approval of the message? How soon will a response to an inquiry be given?
  • Latest News and Updates: Ensure that your core team is always up-to-date with the latest news and information. Set-up alerts that notify you when breaking news happen and consider putting together a daily news bulletin that is shared with members of your organization. When you have identified news that pertains to your organization’s efforts, quickly begin developing messaging and plan for when and where these messages will be delivered. Always keep your organization at the forefront of the news and ready to respond to breaking developments.
  1. Prepare Frontline Staff

Once you have established your communications plan, it’s important to prepare and frequently update your frontline staff. Your staff will have the most contact with the public and you will want to equip them with the tools and knowledge that they need when speaking with patients. Here are some key points to build into your employee communications strategy:

  • Address their concerns about the vaccine first and foremost: As your staff is vaccinated first, speak to them and be ready to address their questions and concerns. Keep them up-to-date with the latest vaccination efforts happening at your facility and the phases of the vaccine rollout.
  • Policies for social media and expressing public opinions: It’s important to develop a social media policy for all employees or update your existing one to include communications about COVID vaccines. Identify what employees can and can’t speak about. Employees should be discouraged from posting false or misleading information. You should also outline disciplinary actions should an employee exhibit inappropriate conduct on social media or violate a patient’s or colleague’s rights by disclosing personal information.
  • Speaking to the media: If employees are contacted by the media, they should know that they should not respond and should instead direct the inquiry to the appropriate media contact. Employees should be discouraged from answering media questions, providing internal documents or disclosing any patient information.
  • What to tell patients and where to refer them for information: Ensure that employees always have the latest information regarding your facility’s vaccination efforts. If employees don’t know the answer or are uncomfortable answering specific questions, let them know where they can direct patients for answers. This could be an educational handout, a webpage, a social media channel or a phone number that patients can call for more information. Employees should be educated on all available resources so that they are comfortable when speaking to patients.

Your organization’s vaccine communications plan will play an important role in educating consumers, building public trust and developing support for the COVID vaccine. Focusing on the four areas listed above will help you develop a well-rounded plan that prepares you for obstacles you are likely to encounter.

Applied Health Analytics can partner with your organization to develop a COVID vaccine strategy and provide a digital application to help track and report vaccine distribution. bMetrix is a standalone application that significantly reduces the time spent on vaccination administration by eliminating the need for paper and allowing for preset parameters to reduce setup time. Contact Applied Health Analytics to setup a strategy session or to learn more about bMetrix for COVID vaccine tracking and reporting.