9 February 2021

Covid and vaccine comms: Nudging from the outside-in

Behavioural Strategist Chloe Foy (ex-London School of Economics) shares insight to help HR and internal communicators support the behaviour change of their employees.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been keenly aware of the opportunities for behavioural science to bring about real and meaningful change. Watching the news, I can’t help noticing the disconnect between insight and communication. (A combination very close to my heart).

One of my favourite insights is that information and education alone does not change behaviour. We’re not the rational and responsive people we think we are but, instead, a bit lazy and selfish.  Behavioural science rule 101 says our actions sit at an unconscious level and we’re largely influenced in ways we’re unaware of. So, whether it’s about physical distance, work-life balance or the vaccine, the subject matter doesn’t really matter. It’s how you spread the word that has the biggest impact.


Make behavioural science work for you, not against you

Descriptive norms

Social norms evidence tells us it’s best not to share the undesired behaviour as it creates a norm effect or ‘license’ for others to follow.

Take the footage of illegal raves. Sharing this only encourages us to think: “Others are taking risks and breaking the rules, maybe I can too.”


Ambiguous messaging

The UK Government’s ‘Stay Alert’ message is a great example of how to get it wrong.

Your messages should be easy to understand and easy to action. Obvious, right? Whilst at the London School of Economics we used to say, “sometimes the obvious is overlooked,” so test your messages to ensure they’ll work. For more on this, check out my video talking about governmental advisor on behaviour change Susan Michie’s COM-B model. Incidentally, I wonder what she had to say about ‘Stay Alert’…


An accidental nudge

Did you know Professor Chris Whitty has a cult following? Beyond his infamous ‘next slide please’ he’s become a great messenger for influencing behaviour change.

Evidence shows we’re greatly influenced not just by what the message says, but who says it. And we’re seeing more and more of this in politics. Whitty makes a great messenger because he’s an expert and he feels trustworthy. He also speaks calmly and sincerely, a recommended approach by the Mental Health First Aid England in how to speak to people experiencing psychological stress.


Salient signals

Speaking of Mr Whitty and his slides, did you notice more graphs are being shared in the daily briefings than before? This means the audience won’t need to absorb every single word that’s being said or read lots of information to understand the message: infection numbers going up = bad, going down = good.

You’ve seen the arrows or footprints on the supermarket floor right? We move towards them, consciously or not. This is a perfect example of priming in our physical surroundings. Importantly, the words ‘please stand here’ are not needed, images and symbols are powerful enough.


There’s hope

And finally, the new hit-it-home ad, “Look into my eyes” is a sure sign we’re prioritising impact. A classic, simple yet powerful nudge on the heart strings, and one which is hard to ignore, especially when woven into TikTok and Instagram feeds.


What about vaccines?

Many front-line care workers in the UK have refused to have the vaccine sending rifts across the country. Clients are asking us how to best approach the comms around getting the vaccine and unsurprisingly, it’s a delicate situation. In 2019, Edelman’s Trust Barometer showed us that we trust our employer more than the government, so what role should employers play?

From a legislative perspective, employers cannot insist employees get the vaccine without their consent. However, you can imagine why workplaces that have a high volume of front-line employees might want to use more persuasive, nudging tactics than others.

From a psychological perspective, we all have biases. Whether it’s negativity bias, projection bias or confirmation bias, there will be a lot going on under the surface when it comes to attitudes and beliefs about getting the vaccine. Remembering that we’re all risk averse and tend to make things black or white (you either want the vaccine, or you don’t) will help create the foundations for your comms approach.

Here are some evidence-based thought starters when it comes to your vaccine comms strategy:

  1. Debunk false claims (e.g. there’s a microchip in the vaccine): use the comms model inoculation theory to counteract fake news.
  2. Make it easy: share information on where and when you can get a vaccine, and give permission to take time off work to get it (studies show maps were used successfully for STDs testing).
  3. Set examples: Share stories from others who have had it – everyone from celebrities, community and co-workers.
  4. Tailor your message to your audience: what is relevant to them and their role?
  5. Use your influencers: identify you own Chris Whitty-style messenger, e.g. relevant specialists, people in the community, even those most at risk to the virus.

Remember that if some start, others will follow, so consider Roger’s adoption curve – some will be innovators, some will be laggards and, as we’ve seen, shifting social norms can help to influence the late adopters.


Trust the science

If you have the time, there are plenty of handbooks online about how to address the vaccine (Institute for PR here and Bristol university here). But if you want to get straight to the point, we’ve done the legwork for you. Contact me for a confidential chat.  

Chloe Foy

Behavioural Strategist


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