Remember last March when, as a country and at a time that COVID-19 was making its presence felt, we were following the flight of the first major consignment of PPE material from China?
Its arrival at Dublin Airport was even reported by RTE News and, as a nation, we breathed a sigh of relief that it was here and ready to go to our hospitals and healthcare professionals.
Fast forward to January 2021, that’s where we are now – in high anticipation but this time the focus is on vaccinations. We know they’re coming, we want more details and, critically, we want to know when they are going to be administered, and how.
The big challenge for the Government is communications – and in this case, PR. Get it right, there’s a major reputation and competence boost that will be long remembered. Get it wrong, the consequences are obvious and dire in terms of lost popularity and lack of respect – in the short to medium term, at least.
Rightly, everyone will have an opinion on this topic and, while by no means exhaustive, these Do’s and Don’ts pointers are, in my experience, a good start to delivering Effective Vaccination Communications.
Keep Your Nerve. No matter what happens, accept that it’s going to be a bumpy ride until the end of March when Oxford /Astra Zeneca becomes the game-changer and issues around administration etc. will have been hopefully smoothed out. However, the roll-out in January – March is critical to establishing a high level of credibility and confidence amongst media and the public prior to mass vaccinations starting in earnest from Q2 and beyond.
Create a central source of information / news hub. Currently, information is patchy and all over the place – literally. There’s too many snippets of news from too many official outlets. Combined, they add-up to nothing meaningful and do not provide a clear picture. Instead of this patchwork, create a central source of information that’s updated daily / weekly which media and public can access to keep fully informed and witness the progress of the rollout to each of the 15 identified vaccination groups.
Make a Plan that can adapt and evolve. While it’s true that no campaign plan ever fully survives a brush with reality, where possible, lock 70% of it in with the balancing 30% allowed for necessary changes as events unfold and unforeseen issues arise. Also, The National Covid-19 Vaccination Programme Strategy from Brian MacCraith and his team – including its observations on Communications – provides a useful narrative framework for message delivery.
Appoint a dedicated Vaccine Communications team. It’s essential to have a group of experienced communications professionals working on the rollout. 100% of their time should be dedicated to this issue alone. The PR team needs to include strategic, activation, social media talent that’s connected with other comms. experts in advertising and media planning also working on the campaign. Access will be important – to Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly who remains the lead spokesperson on this matter in addition to Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE and coordination within Government via Robert Watt, impending Secretary General at the Department of Health.
Identify Issues “Potholes”. Are there issues on the horizon that are likely to trip-up the plan? What are they? When might they occur? What could prompt them? In so far as possible, identify them and – for readiness sake – prepare a draft communications response.
Make the Messaging Simple, Transparent and in Plain English. “Stay at Home”, “Keep Two Meters Apart”, “Jabs in Arms” are simple, easy to understand messages. Remember, there is a lot of “fatigue” around COVID-19 related news. Overcome this by developing targeted messaging that generates engagement and captures attention. Short explainer videos, smart infographics, a dedicated APP are just some of the methods to deliver “At a Glance” news.
Communicate with people in media and on platforms where they listen / read / view content. This point might sound obvious, but it doesn’t feel like this is the case, currently.
Keep Ahead of the Story. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. For instance, we have heard little about the 2.47 million doses of the Curevac vaccine allocated to Ireland – where is that in the approval / arrival process? When will our balancing 875,000 Moderna doses land in Ireland? What’s happening with the Sanofi/ GSK and J+J vaccines? All these are good news stories that need to be planned for.
Obsess about comparison league tables. It’s a futile exercise, because tables change all the time and, from a Big Picture perspective, they are ultimately meaningless. All that matters is “Jabs in Arms”.
Fly PR Kites. The Government getting ahead of themselves and hoping to stock up on Oxford / Astra Zeneca vaccines prior to EU authorisation was a nice story for the weekend papers. However, it was clearly never going to happen, and it didn’t take too long for the EU to shoot that idea down. Best to focus on facts rather than aspirations.
Deploy ill thought through soundbites. In my opinion, official sources were not best served on Tuesday by quoting a tiny percentage figure for the number of people vaccinated to date. 1.9% sounds meagre and paltry and only serves to negatively crystalise how far we must go with the rollout. My advice is to use the equivalent value in numbers and forget quoting percentage figures for the moment. In this case, 94,000 people vaccinated sounds like some degree of progress while 1.9% certainly does not.