Geography, misinformation major vax PR hurdles: experts

Special report: Awareness campaign will be as challenging as vaccine rollout, experts say

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While the mass public rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will be an unprecedented undertaking, the public awareness campaign to ensure everyone knows when and where to get vaccinated will be equally challenging.

That’s the assessment of B.C. researchers and public communications experts, who said both Ottawa and the province will need to overcome the province’s diverse demographics and expansive geography in co-ordinating public-awareness efforts to ensure that the maximum number of people are vaccinated.

But health officials will have some specialized tools at their disposal, said Valorie Crooks, professor of geography at Simon Fraser University and the current Canada Research Chair in Health Service Geography. Crooks noted that – at least in remote northern communities where vaccination clinics are likely limited – there is an opportunity for B.C. to deploy targeted marketing to achieve a better result.

“If there are only certain dates where the vaccine is available in remote communities, that does allow for targeted messaging to happen – making people aware there’s a very specific time frame within which you can access the vaccine,” Crooks said. “If you live in a major centre, the vaccine will likely be available over long periods of time, and you may think, ‘I can do it tomorrow or next week because it will still be there.’ So B.C.’s geography presents us with some opportunities to better reach people.”

B.C. can also learn from countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where public vaccination drives are already taking place, said public-relations firm Edelman Canada’s Vancouver general manager, Rhea Dubois-Phillips.

The key lesson that B.C. should take away so far, she said, is that officials need to take account of the situation on the ground – the demographics of the community at large, the platforms through which they consume news, the languages they use and, most importantly, the messages that would motivate people to get vaccinated.

“You have to figure out what barriers are there that would prevent certain stakeholders from getting the vaccine,” Dubois-Phillips said. “That information can help inform your messaging strategy.… You have to know where you are starting from, where there may be pockets of misinformation and uncertainty. Then you can start to plan for each of these audiences.”

The rise of the anti-vaxxer sentiment in North America and throughout the world in the last few years has raised concerns from many experts that a COVID vaccination drive may be impeded by counter-messaging from these communities.

That is why, Crooks said, the key will be avoiding a one-size-fit-all public awareness campaign. The priority should be to identify trusted message-carriers – whether that be local newspapers, community leaders, online platforms or other individuals – whose delivery of vaccination information would be more easily accepted at the micro-local level, she said.

“We need public health communication strategies that make sense in the places where people live,” Crooks said. “People who are health authority liaisons or on-site providers need to be involved in leadership in how information is shared.”

Dubois-Phillips agreed, adding that relying on daily news conferences will not by itself lead to a successful public awareness rollout. She noted examples during the early days of COVID where provincial news conferences aimed at urging people to stay home and flatten the curve; some of these efforts, she said, were unsuccessful because the information wasn’t readily available in the languages of certain ethnic and religious communities – meaning the messaging did not reach all of its intended target.

“A narrow-minded approach will not lead to success,” Dubois-Phillips said. “The population is very segmented. In order to have a successful communication campaign, it must be able to spread across demographics and geographies. I think a lot of people are frustrated with the lack of transparency in current vaccination plans. A lot of people are asking their doctors about when they are getting their shots … and when there’s a lack of information, there’s a mistrust. We know people trust in science and research; the counter-messaging we see right now is emotional and based on fear. That’s why it’s crucial to communicate with people frequently through multiple mediums – and let science lead.”

Dubois-Phillips added that any publicity campaign cannot be rigid – it must continuously listen to the public response to ongoing vaccination efforts as the process rolls out during 2021, and adjustments must be made quickly if officials see instances where the message of vaccination no longer resonates.