How researchers get heard

Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy: Local is Everything

One of science communications’ worst habits is to assume that, once we’ve done some research on a better way to communicate, it should be no problem for the rest of the world to put that better way to use.

“We know how to do this!” we tweet with exasperation (say, about vaccine communications) — without acknowledging all the obstacles (from money to resources to institutional capacity and flexibility) to translating what we find in the lab into real-world results.

High on the list of complications: Local is everything.

A new piece in Scientific American reports on what social science knows about convincing people to take vaccines. Quite a lot, it turns out — reporter Claudia Wallis has assembled a bright, long catalog of tactics, headed up with the by-now-familiar best-practice admonitions from public health and sci comms experts. Listen! Work with people! Use nudges! Be clear and transparent and forthcoming and establish trust and find community ambassadors for your messaging and resonate with everyone’s core values! Hand out “I got my vaccine” stickers!

It all sounds so reasonable and obvious. What’s the big deal — let’s get this herd immunized!

But that’s just knowledge. Actually turning that knowledge into a nationwide series of locally and culturally sensitive evidence-based communications campaigns — that will be incredibly complicated and take money and coordination and ongoing guidance.

Just glance at this December overview of the challenges from the Washington Post’s Frances Stead Sellers. For instance: We are all still waiting for that CDC-led national pro-vaccination campaign, with PSAs from Fauci and celebrities. But as Sellers reports

Numerous local health departments say that overcoming fears and building engagement depend on understanding many more intimate neighborhood networks and providing people with role models they may spot on the street, rather than just on TV.

“They are people where someone will say, ‘I know this guy. I’ve seen them on the block,’ ” said James Garrow, communications director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “They may have 20,000 followers on Instagram. And they’ll be different in West Philly versus North Philly.”

Think about your local public health officials trying to win over those microinfluencers and developing their messaging and ensuring doctors and other front-line health care workers have guidelines on how to communicate empathically and without lecturing and developing social media messaging to counter disinformation campaigns and doing all this in multiple languages and for multiple identity groups, all with different takes on why the vaccine isn’t for them.

And all in the middle of managing a pandemic.

So: Of course, let’s communicate science and encourage good public health behaviors using evidence-based approaches.

But make sure the tactics you’re lifting from studies knit together into a campaign that covers all your local variables.

An important new article just out in NEJM (“Beyond Politics — Promoting Covid-19 Vaccination in the United States”) offers 12 key strategic guidelines for the vaccine promotion effort. I think it’s required reading for any research communicator, because it gathers up what science communications research knows into a strategic approach — the beginnings of a comprehensive marketing plan that can be tailored to different audiences and their varying degrees of vaccine hesitancy.

The mistake we keep making — both in science communications and in the science of science communications — is saying: Hey, here’s a bunch of studies! We know stuff! Act accordingly! (You know, the kind of crude information-deficit thinking we love to criticize in scientists.)

Changing lives requires more than studies. It requires integrating tactics into strategies and campaigns, and making adjustments.

Local is everything. And it bites back when it’s not taken seriously.