Vaccine communication for citizens: What role can councils play?

By Karen Steel | 22 January 2021

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine has provided a glimmer of hope throughout these winter months, but with the announcement of the third national lockdown, the message from the government was clear - unless we roll it out immediately our NHS will be in trouble and we could find ourselves under these restrictions for a lot longer.

A mass programme of vaccination like this is no easy feat and it needs to be done at an extreme pace. Once upon a time getting vaccinated was a simple matter of being called into a room by the school nurse and a ‘sharp scratch’. People didn’t really question the system – and that was how some truly dreadful diseases were eliminated.

However, communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine takes place in a different landscape. There is endless information out there, readily available online and on social media, but so much of it is misinformation. This, combined with the speed at which events have happened in 2020, has contributed to a malaise in some areas about getting a vaccine.

This is where education from a trusted source comes in. And regardless of what some people may think, your local council is still considered a trusted source. We saw this to the nth degree back in March when people flocked to sign up to bulletins on our customers’ websites. Unlike media reports, which can sometimes have a political leaning or have to offer ‘both sides’, local authorities work hard to be apolitical in the information they put out. There are whole policies and regulations devoted to it.

It appears that there is not yet a clear path set out for local authorities on their role in the vaccination roll out. But it is a massive project to undertake with a regional focus, and according to the LGA, it is vital councils are involved. They are best positioned to help spread clear messaging, as well as identify the communities and neigbourhoods in greatest need, and ensure it is being distributed fairly amongst residents.

It is highly likely that councils will be responsible for sharing information once mass vaccination takes place amongst a wider range of groups, and preparations will need to be made.

Approaching vaccine communications

First, if you find yourself responsible for preparing any communications on the virus  acknowledge you don’t have to do all the work yourself. Local authorities are supplied with information straight from Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, nicely packaged by Public Health England and the NHS in easy-to-understand formats. Do look at what they’ve provided, what shapes and formats it comes in and which of your channels and audiences they’re best suited for.

Another way to get ahead of the game is to prepare a list of the different questions you hear the public asking. It’s worth speaking to your call centre staff to find out if they’re hearing questions about the vaccine. These will likely be along the lines of safety, timing and logistics.

Due to their understanding of their local community, local councils are in a unique position to consider the different risk groups – elderly people, social care workers, people with disabilities, young children – and therefore answer specific questions they may have. It will be important to question how you currently engage with those people. If you’ve been using a communication platform, such as GovDelivery, to put out regular communications over the past year and had the foresight to ask your subscribers to answer questions about themselves, you can do some analysis to see the composition of your audience.

It’s also worth remembering the fundamental repetition of key messages: the vaccine is safe, you will be contacted when it’s your turn, the ongoing importance of ‘hands/face/space’. If you have page watch bulletins, such as your Twitter feed, which go out automatically, add a linked image which goes to government guidance about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

Your staff are your biggest resource

More than ever, the value of local government and public sector staff has shown itself during the events of the past 12 months – but your staff are also human beings with their own lives, worries and questions and keeping everyone informed internally is equally important as informing the public when it comes to creating consistent messaging.

If you have a large number of admins on your internal communication platform, consider posting an announcement, ideally with one of those government images linking to official information; they will see this each time they log into the platform and be reminded of the importance of the vaccine in communications with their own audiences – you can even tell them how to contact you to ensure they’re only putting out official messaging.

Respond don’t react

If the messaging changes or if the questions you’re being asked take an unexpected turn, take a step back, take a breath and approach the new situation logically and (if possible) using the data at your disposal.

This is possibly the biggest challenge many communications professionals will be part of in their lifetime. You’re not alone in this so reach out to your neighbouring authorities, peers or do some research to see what other people are doing.

And finally, evaluate as you go. It’s a lot easier to keep a record of how your bulletins, tweets or Facebook posts are working as you go than to go back in three months’ time and sift through piles of reports. Determine what it is you will measure to track success and keep a running total – this will also help you to pivot if you decide something isn’t working as well as you hoped.

Karen Steel is customer success manager at Granicus

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