8 Key Principles for COVID-19 Vaccine Communications

November 24, 2020


In upcoming months, vaccines will dominate national and global debate. Billions of people will be having the same conversation: Will you take the vaccine? Do you trust it? We are seeing unprecedented levels of vaccine hesitancy that could threaten our ability to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. 

In response to this, Purpose and the United Nations’ Verified initiative has partnered with the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications to produce a Guide to COVID-19 Vaccine Communications

This guide provides a set of principles for sharing vaccine information that can help increase trust, acceptance and demand for vaccination. It explains complexity and nuance, and offers insights drawn from leading experts in vaccine communications that can guide your efforts.

Here’s a snapshot of their 8 principles and recommendations for communicating on the COVID-19 vaccine:


1. Work within worldviews, identities, and moral values. 

Each of us has a unique set of identities, worldviews and moral values. These influence our choices and behaviors, and even what we believe to be true. Rather than investing time into messages to try to convince people otherwise, it’s worthwhile to understand what others see as right and wrong and to connect with what’s most important to them. Find the common ground between what we hope to achieve and what matters to them.

Recommendation: Use your resources effectively by focusing your message on those that are most resistant to vaccine uptake. Focusing your messages on those less likely to act is likely to be a more effective use of resources.


2. Use timing to your advantage.

It’s far easier to build trust when you’re the first to articulate a message. People are most likely to trust—and stick to—the version of information they hear first.

Recommendation: Consider what else is happening at the same time and how that might affect how much people trust your message.


3. Use the right messengers for your audience.

People act when they trust the messenger, the message and their motivations. Trusted messengers vary greatly from community to community, but there are some broad lessons we can apply.

Recommendation: Recognize that there are trusted messengers in both offline and digital communities. It’s important to listen to both to identify trusted individuals who can help you create and share messages that will be trusted by a community.


4. Make your content concrete, supply a narrative and provide value.

If messages aren’t concrete and don’t include stories, our powerful sense-making brains will fill the abstraction with stories and ideas that make sense to us.

Recommendation: Use definitions and details rather than acronyms and jargon.


5. Recognize that communities have different relationships with vaccination.

In some societies, people may be fearful of vaccines, but have a strong trust in authority. In others, mandatory vaccinations have created distrust of government authorities. In others, decades of mistreatment and exploitation have resulted in a profound lack of trust in new medical treatments.

Recommendation: Recognize that particular communities have significant and valid reasons to be fearful of new medical interventions and address these transparently.


6. Change social norms to help gain acceptance.

We are deeply affected by the behavior and choices of people in our networks—even people we may not have met. Examining vaccine hesitancy through the lens of social norms offers two opportunities to make a difference. The first is activating social networks and peoples’ perceptions of what others are doing. The second is in changing the communications norms among those communicating on behalf of the vaccine.

Recommendation: Shift perceived norms with your identified community with messages that highlight others within their social network who are getting the vaccine, not those who aren’t.


7. Evoke the right emotions.

It’s tempting to activate emotions like fear or shame to get people to take a vaccine, but fear immobilizes us, and shame is likely to achieve the opposite reaction we’re hoping for. Look to more constructive emotions like love, hope and the desire to protect to get people to act.

Recommendation: Tap into hope, pride and parental love to motivate people to act and affirm their positive sense of self. 


8. Be explicit and transparent about your motivations.

Our perceptions of the motivations of the messenger matters. Our motivations in seeking information are equally important. We’re less likely to trust a vaccine if we question the motives of the people advocating for us to take it.

Recommendation: Learn about the motivations of your community and their information seeking behavior.



Read the full  guide with a list of recommendations for each principle: Guide to COVID-19 Vaccine Communications.