FRIDAY 16 JUL 2021 4:13 PM


Global media intelligence provider, Carma, hosted an online webinar yesterday 15 July, in which PR and comms experts discussed Covid-19 and vaccination communications.

Orla Graham, account director at Carma, opened the webinar with a break down of the findings from Carma's ‘Trust in Covid-19 Vaccines’ report. The research found that media coverage and government officials were particularly influential in directing public perceptions of the vaccine.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared the AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘quasi-ineffective’ for over 65s, while Angela Merkel said she would not take the AstraZeneca vaccine. This media coverage served to fuel public confusion and therefore scepticism surrounding the vaccine. Both the above politicians later rebuked their earlier claims, however the negative narrative had already taken hold causing doubt and concern among the public.

“People absorb headlines far more than article content,” says Graham, so emotive headlines were key in controlling the vaccine narrative. AstraZeneca has been at the heart of the vaccination conversation, from being mentioned and praised as pending for approval in December 2020, to the reported EU shortfall and delivery in January and reports of blood clot side effects in March. Distrust in the AstraZeneca vaccine grew in Europe after the rise in blood clot reporting, and Google searches of side effects skyrocketed.

However, negative reporting in the UK was counteracted by an abundance of expert advice and communications explaining the data. “All of this demonstrates that words and who says them really matters,” adds Graham.

Catherine Hunt, head of insight and evaluation for the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet, gave a government perspective. “It was not just one campaign, it was 20 major campaigns, and 60 smaller campaigns going all time. Moving from lockdown to unlocking, to downloading an app, to tiers, staying at home and relaxation,” says Hunt.

Looking at what can be learnt from the past year, Hunt says there were four broad stages: planning, implementing, evaluating and reporting. The understanding of politicians and experts working together has been really important, says Hunt. Targeted communications were also fundamental in reaching harder to access communities. Koray Camgoz, director of communications and marketing at the PRCA, then led a wider discussion on Covid-19 and vaccination comms.

“In any crisis there is an information gap where people look for clarity, context and guidance,” says Matthew Hare-Scott, director at Porter Novelli.  There is traditionally a trust gap between political leaders and the public, and this is something that has to be earned. However, Richard Bagnall, co-managing partner at Carma, says that Covid-19 has almost seen the opposite occur, with leaders giving mixed and confused messages that led to a significant decline in trust. “Careless communications ultimately cost lives,” adds Bagnall.

Ishtar Scheneider, associate director of health at Edelman, says that people need to understand the process before they can trust the vaccines, and this extends to future vaccine communications that will likely fall at the same hurdle. In support of this argument, Matthew Hare-Scott says that when it comes to public health, people need to be given the knowledge and understanding to make their own decisions. Indeed, if people are informed then they have the tools to dispel misinformation and share this message through personal conversations, adds Orla Graham.

Speaking from experience following her involvement in the campaign to change the policy around organ donation in the UK, Sarah Waddington says that accessing harder to reach communities is fundamental to public health uptake and success. Using leaders from within these communities is highly valuable, but understanding your audience is the key to ensuring two-way engagement. Waddington says, “The big lesson is that well planned, well measured comms leads to really efficient outcomes, that in this situation can save lives."

Reflecting again on Covid-19 comms, Catherine Hunt says, “It’s not just about how many people saw the campaigns, it’s about how many people are understanding it.” Other key messages driven home by the guest speakers were the importance of consistency and being aware that data needs to be carefully interpreted. Bagnall says, “Covid changed everything in those dreadful weeks and any research that a professional communicator had at that point became obsolete. We must move our measurement and thinking beyond just doing stuff, to doing stuff that matters. This has been the ultimate example of that."

Find the ‘Trust in Covid-19 Vaccines Report’ here.