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Vax Unpacked: PR and Comms on the Frontline

The story behind the data

16 July 2021 by

A group of leading figures from the PR world gathered to unpack the story behind the data in CARMA’s ‘Trust in Covid-19 Vaccines’ report, featured in The FT, spoken about by The Economist’s Health Editor, and more besides. The conversation was contextualised with insight from Catherine Hunt, Head of Insight and Evaluation at the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office, who provided the inside scoop on the UK Government’s communications strategy during this unprecedented period.

We were delighted to host an impressive line-up of experts alongside Catherine, including Ishtar Schneider (Edelman), Matthew Hare Scott (Porter Novelli), Sarah Waddington CBE, (Astute.Work), Koray Camgöz (PRCA) and Orla Graham & Richard Bagnall (CARMA).

So, what did we learn? And crucially, how can PR and comms professionals take lessons from the vaccine roll-out and apply them to their own campaigns, programmes, and how they’re measured?

Watch on-demand: Vax Unpacked: PR and Comms on the Frontline.

Headlines matter

Digging into our report, Orla Graham,  looked closely at news consumption – reminding us that increasingly opinions are formed based on headlines alone.  CARMA’s research showed that emotive headlines (prompted by Government comms) stoked concerns with the public, which was particularly high in Germany and France, in line with negative sentiment from country leaders. The AstraZeneca brand was also often cited, particularly in stories around a lack of efficacy and potential side effects. This, says CARMA’s research, was likely to have fuelled public mistrust of AZ in particular, and directly impacted take up of the drug.Indeed, CARMA’s Richard Bagnall confirmed that, at one point during this period, French authorities were not using up to 25 percent of their Astra Zeneca supply, which was instead: “sitting in fridges, waiting for people who were simply unwilling to take it.”

The UK did particularly well, commented Orla, in countering negative narratives through the use of expert spokespeople. Flanking the Prime Minister in press briefings were top scientists and epidemiologists, who became as well-known by the public as political figures, and who were able to answer tricky questions and explain the complex data behind policy decisions.

Sarah Waddington MBE confirmed the need for both experts and advocates. A good example of this, she says, is where the Government has engaged leaders from communities with low vaccine take up. This has resulted in a halo effect, where those influential figures have been able to educate their communities, driving positive sentiment and boosting trust.

Learnings:

  • Government spokespeople are instrumental to the tone and sentiment of reporting
  • Headlines matter. Emotive headlines (outputs) impact public opinion (out-takes) and can drive outcomes.
  • The impact of mixed messaging shouldn’t be ignored. It carries through in search trends and opinion research – people listen to leaders.

Trust must be earned

“Communications is crucial, but you can’t communicate your way out of bad behaviour”, says Richard Bagnall. The most compelling spokespeople are those who lead by example and ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk,’ backing up what they say with positive action of their own.

Matthew Hare-Scott, a Director at Porter Novelli, confirms that the public are looking for authentic and transparent spokespeople more than ever. “We need to be able to trust our leaders when we’re making life and death decisions” he says.

Learnings:

  • Trust is earned through demonstrative behaviour (authenticity)
  • You can’t communicate your way out of bad behaviour

 

Data, Measurement, and Evaluation are all crucial

Catherine Hunt revealed the scale of the task when it came to evaluating how Government communications were resonating with the public. Not only did her team have to look at everything from national sentiment to hyper-local responses, but they also had work against the backdrop of a fast changing (and unpredictable) situation.

For Catherine, good planning was imperative, as was understanding the (at times very nuanced) Government objectives. For example, in the UK, where public trust in the NHS was high, the need wasn’t to persuade people to be vaccinated, but instead to reassure them that the vaccine was being rolled out in a fair and equitable manner. And so, it was important for Catherine and the Government Communication Service to track whether that particular message was landing with the audiences they needed it to.

Of course, explains Richard Bagnall, evaluation like this moves way beyond just ‘counting stuff’ to looking at the outcomes of activity. What do people do with the information they have and how does their behaviour change as a result? Let’s not forget, in a crisis, everything we thought we knew about our audience is now different, communicators cannot assume anything – be data informed, be agile, and measure better.

The panel asserted that of course measurement is important, but it’s what you do with the data that counts. Catherine commented that, in Government communications, measurement has been used not only to look at how decisions have been received, but also to actually shape how policy is made. Because good measurement is a cornerstone of communications and organisational planning – using data-driven insights to help inform strategy.

Indeed, sharing data has been a cornerstone of the communications strategies around the vaccine, with regular communications aimed helping the public understand the science behind the vaccine rollout. In this respect, the panellists say, the need for clarity of message is crucial– particularly when audiences are asked to understand and act on complex clinical data.

Learnings:

  • Planning is critical. Plan against objectives, not against numbers. Because if you target numbers and trends, you’ll just end up counting stuff, and counting stuff achieves very little.
  • No two audiences are the same. Remember that in your planning and execution.

In a crisis, everything you thought you knew is obsolete. Revisit your objectives, your audience research, your data, your plan, your tactics, and your strategy.

 

Final thoughts – lessons from the pandemic

So plenty to consider in a lively and informative debate. And importantly, the group left us with five key takeaways from the vaccine comms challenge that we can use in all our work:

1. Don’t shy away from challenges from your audiences – acknowledge how people feel and respond to questions clearly and consistently.

2. People crave authentic and transparent voices. Listen to your audience, understand their concerns, and communicate effectively.

3. Demonstrate your purpose. Show that you’re invested and committed to what you’re trying to do. And demonstrate it through your behaviour – be authentic.

4. Consistency matters – both in what you say and then what you do.

5. Well planned and well measured comms leads to impactful outcomes. Measurement must not be an afterthought, but an integral part of strategy and planning. And there’s no better case study than the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccine rollout, and corresponding comms.


Jack Richards, International Marketing Manager at CARMA, is a Chartered Manager; Member of the PRCA; and Associate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He has worked with organisations of all sizes encompassing consultancy; SaaS; and the public sector where he has enjoyed building rich on-the-ground experience in marketing and communications. Driven by data, Jack is passionate about communications practitioners leveraging technology to better inform PR and marketing decision making. In addition to his work at CARMA, Jack has been recognised by numerous organisations for his work on supporting and promoting alternative routes to education. When he isn’t at his CARMA desk, you’ll find Jack walking his dog; exploring new places; or enjoying an outing with friends.

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